Book Review of Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 5/4/08
This is an odd book. Yet, highly entertaining is it as long as excessive sexual details don’t deter you. Honestly, this book was better than I thought it would be—it’s quite funny actually, and I found myself laughing out loud. Here’s the thing: I had read Philip Roth in the past, two novellas of his, and found them to be rather humorless and silly. Portnoy’s Complaint, however, is rather silly and full of humor. So that’s not so bad.
The story all takes place on a shrink’s couch, where Alexander Portnoy is disclosing his Jewish American life story, or his impression of it anyway. Like most young males, he is sex obsessed and takes to extreme methods masturbation, (some involving food and socks and other objects) all detailed in length. He also lies to his mother about using the bathroom (for his own erotic purposes but he tells her he has diarrhea) creating a hilarious scene where Mrs. Portnoy demands to “look inside the bowl and see his poopie” to see just what it ailing her son, and all he can tell her is to “stop calling it poopie” because he’s in high school.
The book then covers his later years and his experiences with a whore named The Monkey (nicknamed The Monkey because she ate a banana while watching a couple have sex) who is fairly uneducated and dumb as a log and can’t seem to spell simple words, yet Alex stays with her because they have sex all the time. Some have said he has a hatred for women, and I didn’t find that to be the case. Since he is untrustworthy as a narrator, everything he says has to be taken with a grain of salt because his disclosures are, more often than not, hyperbole.
Mostly this book consists of a man’s ramblings about his sexual fantasies, and many reviewers online have commented that Alex is not a likeable character. I disagree with that, for while I didn’t particularly like him, he’s not unlikeable—just typical, and perhaps a tad bit immature. Certainly he is funny, and of course he is making most of this stuff up since much of it doesn’t sound all that believable and it is highly plausible that this is just his fantasy. Having said that, Alex Portnoy is the textbook definition of the unreliable narrator. In fact, if the last line in the book is any indication, the entire “confession” is probably all in his head.
I wouldn’t call Portnoy’s Complaint a great novel, but certainly it is a good one—also, as I mentioned, one to be taken with a grain of salt. If highly detailed sex scenes offend you, then this is not your book. I lost track of the number of times certain four letter C words were used, for example.
As for what he’s complaining about? Everything. From his sexual situations, to women in general, to being Jewish, to wanting to hang with Gentiles, (they don’t talk with double negatives, he claims) to his own anxieties—everything is fair game. Another point readers have commented is that the book seems dated from when it was first published back in the 60s. I can’t say I agree with that because males are always going to have their delusional, sex-obsessed fantasies, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that (another reason why I don’t think Alex is an unlikeable character—he’s just typical in that way).
The reason this book works is because of its humor and the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yes, there are moments in the book where Alex’s rants can get a bit tiresome and excessively silly, but such was probably Roth’s intention. When the moments do get tiresome and excessively silly, they don’t last long because the narrator is there to pull you back. The text is also not overly long, (my version finishes at 274 pages—large font) and the tale is what it is. While not a “deep” novel in the philosophical or even in the psychological sense, Alex does make some good insights about the human condition from time to time, when he’s not describing his latest oral escapade. And even when he is, Roth has some good descriptions of it.
A novel that certainly would have been “shocking” in its day, Portnoy’s Complaint holds up well, and while not as great or insightful with satire as someone like Vonnegut, for what it is, Portnoy’s Complaint certainly deserves its place in literary history.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
Return to Bylines