Sunday, December 25, 2016

Review: Portnoy's Complaint

Portnoy's Complaint Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s been 20-25 years since I first read this book, and I’ve referred it ever since as the funniest novel I have ever read. Upon further review: the call still stands.

This is a book whose reputation is at least as large as it is itself. Even if you haven’t read it, you probably have a sense of “the Monkey” or of “put the id in Yid.” My favorite moment last time around came during the scene when, worried he’d contracted syphilis, he imagines his penis falling off and rolling under the dinner table. His mother cries out, “What will he tell his children?” And his father wails, “Don’t you understand? There aren’t going to be any grandchildren!” It’s still hilarious to me, still a contender for the funniest moment, but there are so many others. I enjoyed the assorted imagined headlines that occur to him during moments of despair, always the the-world-is-looking-at-me drama that feels authentic and never runs out of comedy fuel. And, of course, “Oh, Alice” from the shikse baton twirler any time she drops a throw.

As funny as this is, though, it is – as the cover blurb from Cynthia Ozick tells us – a deeply moral work. Portnoy is judgemental and moralistic. He’s a public figure for human rights for the semi-forgotten reformist mayor John Lindsay, and he’s a committed socialist. He judges others by the standards of the student movement 1960s. He puts himself forward for determining who is worthy and who is not, with finding fault with Jews of his parents’ generation, with Jewish moralizing, and with capitalism and its advocates.

It’s important to remember that Roth isn’t Portnoy. Instead, Roth has created Portnoy as someone exaggerating his own worst flaws. He is the one who comes in for the most contempt. His impulse to judge others is part of what we should judge him for. Through him, Roth may be criticizing much of then contemporary culture, but he is, above all, criticizing himself, criticizing what he sees as the worst in himself.

There’s a moral/emotional striptease to all of that, a revealing of self that, ever funny, becomes painfully funnier on reflection. It must have taken an extraordinary effort to push for such honesty. The humor obscures that effort, but figuring that out makes the humor all the more impressive for serving such an end.

It occurs to me as I read this that the very end, the part labeled “The Punch Line” when Spielvogel says, “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” suggests the possibility that we are to read all that precedes this as an internal monologue. Maybe Spielvogel is commending Portnoy for a breakthrough – I think that’s how it’s typically read – but I see the possibility that he is effectively saying “hello.” If so, how much more compelling is it that Portnoy has shared with us – with the readers – confessions he’s unable to share with his shrink?

There’s so much more to talk about with this one, but I’ll leave off. It’s good to know that it hasn’t lost anything in the time since I first read it which was already a good 20-some years after Roth wrote it.

View all my reviews

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