Classics are classics for a reason, but this reason changes depending on the book. Sometimes, a piece of art comes at just the right moment, and it ends up defining a generation. Sometimes, a piece of art is a classic because it changes everything that comes after it. And then, sometimes, a piece of art is just an oddity, standing on its own, and it’s unlike anything that really came before it or after it.
I bought Portnoy’s Complaint for one reason: I heard that Philip Roth was a great author. I had no idea what I was getting into. I’ve seen the book on Best Of… lists, and TIME magazine considered it one of the best novels of its century. There comes a point where, if I hear enough that something is revered and I see it on enough lists, I’ll give it a shot regardless of what it is. The fuss is probably warranted, right? Portnoy’s Complaint, isn’t a book with an especially dramatic plot, warm and likable characters, and or era-defining set-pieces. Instead, it’s a narrative of the narrowest focus — it’s essentially a monologue, delivered via stream-of-conscious writing, from one neurotic suburban Jewish man to his therapist.
If you are as unfamiliar with Portnoy’s Complaint as I was buying it, you’re probably still wondering what about it makes it a classic. It’s vulgar. And I mean super vulgar.
Upon this book’s release, it received a lot of attention for being profane, obscene, crude, and vulgar. This book, released at the end of the 1960’s, was definitely provocative for its time. 1969 was just feeling the brunt of the sexual revolution, when Leave it to Beaver‘s depiction of family life was slowly unraveling in the popular consciousness. What I think is amazing is, unlike Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, this book still feels like it’s pushing boundaries in regards to how vulgar it is. There are some pretty unspeakable acts and thoughts that flow through this book, even by today’s standards. I’m not a prude, but there were plenty of times that my mouth dropped open, incredulous to the things I just read. Infamously, there’s a scene that involves masturbation, liver, and a family’s dinner; I’ll let you imagine how those items fit together.
Now, you may be thinking: Okay, so this is just smut, right? I think that, in the hands of any other author, this material would come across as pornographic, sadistic, or misogynistic. Instead, the titular Portnoy feels like a genuine character — not some silly caricature designed to offend the audience. There’s an unshakable feeling that at least part of this character is autobiographic (Roth also grew up in a similar neighborhood under similar circumstances). The neuroses that the audience is allowed to see feels somewhat honest — there are clear reasons why Portnoy behaves the way he does, and we can see it, trace it back to these cognitions/actions. Is Alexander Portnoy despicable? Yes. Is he a terrible human being? Certainly. However, there’s a certain kernel of logic and reason that he carries around with him. Roth doesn’t expect you to love Alexander Portnoy, but he does expect you to understand him.
The narrator, titular character, and all-around hyper-neurotic guy, Alexander Portnoy is by most accounts a pig. He’s a smart guy, and he won’t let you forget it — he constantly refers to literature, but he’ll never forget to quote the source for you, lest you go by without the realization that he is a well-read gentleman. He’s obsessed with sex — as a teenager, he masturbates compulsively, and as an adult, it’s all that he really seeks in life. He objectifies women — Portnoy refers to past girlfriends via nicknames to dehumanize them. He’s a volatile mix of superego and id, constantly fighting the ghost (figurative) of his mother, trying to prove himself as a worthy little boy. What seems, at least initially, like a caricature is a very real person. This is not someone you would want to know in real life.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention — this book is absolutely hilarious! There are some crude jokes, yes, but often the humor comes from a very “Jewish” sensibility. If you enjoy the humor of Larry David or Woody Allen, it’s hard not to see some influence this book/humor has had on their work. Roth captures the insecurity of a young Jewish man coming of age in suburbia and all of the paranoia that comes with it. There are delightful turns-of-phrase and plenty of great back-and-forth, especially from Portnoy’s parents who aren’t too different from Jerry Seinfeld’s on his show.
Portnoy’s Complaint is a classic, but not because it only embodies the repression of sexual tension in 1960’s America. Underneath the degradation, underneath the neurosis, there’s a very real portrait of a young man struggling to find meaning. It’s not always pleasant… hell, it’s almost never pleasant, but it’s a fascinating book to spend time in. I’ve read some reviews that lamented that this book was thin on plot. While I may agree, I would suggest that, while you read the book ask yourself “why is this character here, spilling his guts?” This fact only truly becomes clear within the final few pages, and it makes the previous 250 pages all fall into place and make sense. This book definitely still holds up.