The Chronicle Review

Portnoy's Enduring Complaint

Chronicle illustration by Scott Seymour

May 13, 2012

Most people I have asked remember where they were when they read Portnoy's Complaint, something like when President Kennedy Was Shot—a more cheerful memory, needless to say, but one that sticks for much the same reason. Reading Philip Roth's yellow-clad book felt like the end of innocence, which (for boomers, curiously) had a way of ending again and again. Or was it that we felt unexpectedly discovered?

Who in the history of the world has been least able to deal with a woman's tears? My father. I am second. He says to me, "You heard your mother. Don't eat French fries with Melvin Weiner after school." "Or ever," she pleads.

"Or ever," my father says.

"Or hamburgers out," she pleads.

"Or hamburgers out," he says.

"Hamburgers," she says bitterly, just as she might say Hitler, "where they can put anything in the world in that they want—and he eats them. Jack, make him promise, before he gives himself a terrible tsura, and it's too late."

"I promise!" I scream. "I promise!" and race from the kitchen—to where? Where else.

I tear off my pants, furiously I grab that battered battering ram to freedom, my adolescent cock, even as my mother begins to call from the other side of the bathroom door. "Now this time don't flush. Do you hear me, Alex? I have to see what's in that bowl!" Doctor, do you understand what I was up against? My wing was all I really had that I could call my own ...

The first I heard of the book, a friend from McGill University immediately began reading me long passages on the phone. I knew students who sat around in coffee shops, student unions, and Hillel houses reading the entire book out loud to one another, a kind of spontaneous, burlesque Bloomsday. A lawyer friend in Boston wrote: "One reason I married Joni was because when she and I first met, we coincidentally were both reading Portnoy's Complaint, found it uproarious, and I knew we were right for each other."

Yet Roth found—how does Joseph Conrad put it?—"the terms of his appeal" not only among people now over 60, and not only among American Jews. By 1975, six years after the book's publication, Portnoy's Complaint had sold nearly half a million copies in hardback in the United States, three and a half million in paperback. The novel was translated into virtually every language in which you did not have to explain the term "neurotic," including Finnish, Hungarian, and Japanese. American librarians still consistently list Portnoy's Complaint among the 20th century's top 100. Search it on Google and you get well over 265,000 hits.

 We remember Alex Portnoy impaling with pitiless thrusts invasive mothers, plugged-up fathers, dizzying women in heat. We remember, with sympathetic relief, Portnoy's letting go with an utter version of himself, the way we could only imagine someone erupting on the analyst's couch, as if back then we could really imagine, let alone afford, the analyst's couch. Portnoy spoke of pleasuring himself hungrily, though pleasure hardly seemed the word for it. Let's get this out of the way: You still can get intelligent, graying people to laugh out loud simply by coupling "Alex" with "liver."

For the brothers among us, who did not share Portnoy's belief that standing under a fly ball, knowing you would make the catch, could turn center field into a delusionary metaphor for "life"? As for sisters, who was not thrilled to find confirmation of the sheer power of panties? (Then again, I recently visited a Midwestern campus where I was instructed by a young professor of women's studies that Portnoy's lust—actually, "Roth's misogyny"—is now studied only with the precautions one takes examining any other biological hazard.)

And Portnoy took on—or, more accurately, refused to let off—his American Jewish family. This was immediately assumed to mean Jews in general, which in 1969 seemed especially brazen. It was only 27 years after 1942 and 21 years after 1948. American Jews thought they had earned a kind of moral intermission that Portnoy seemed not to be respecting. It was also just two years after the 1967 war, which had made Diaspora Jews and organized American Zionists inarguably (now, unimaginably) cool. Portnoy's tribal wordplay suggested, prophetically, that if Jews had power and bodies, that only meant they'd be struggling with the world-historical sinfulness they had customarily projected onto Gentiles. You put the id back in Yid, Portnoy instructed, and you come to understand the "oy" in goy.

Portnoy, in other words, spoke so frankly about our arousing parts and sly transgressions—things even Leopold and Molly Bloom mostly insinuated—that it was hard not to feel a kind of shameless release. An elderly Irishman, a retired professor of history, told me recently, "I could not believe what I was reading when I read Portnoy's Complaint. I never thought that I could see such things become literature." We recall Portnoy avidly moving from one exhausted insight to the next, one exhausted fantasy to the next, punch line to punch line, nipple to nipple—brilliant, aggrieved, promiscuous.

Still, the effect that endures from the art has been something of a blur. People remember in flashes characters and vignettes. But few can remember the book's architecture or identify any big ideas. Trying to remember the plot is like trying to remember the composition of a Jackson Pollock canvas. The book doesn't really have a hero, so how to account for its champions? Irving Howe wrote back in 1972 that "the cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy's Complaint is to read it twice."

But why would anyone have needed to read it twice? For most of us, the moment of reading was what was valuable, then and since, and not simply in the nostalgic sense. "I don't remember much except that Portnoy was funny and bad and vigorous, and that seemed a comfort," a cousin wrote me. That's pretty much how most of us felt. (Howe would eventually change his mind about Portnoy's Complaint, by the way. He told me some years later, in the code of the New York intellectuals, that he had underestimated Roth's "great talent for dialogue.")

This is all puzzling. How could the experience of reading a book evoke such vivid appreciation and leave such a fuzzy imprint? Conrad supposed that great art necessarily grows "less distinct" over the years. Yet Heart of Darkness had, as they say, a takeaway. What was the takeaway from Portnoy's Complaint? Did it have an implication that explains, at least in part, why it traveled through generations of readers? Anyway, the challenge for anyone trying to celebrate the book is to get at what makes it increasingly distinct as we age along with it. The clock is ticking on Roth and on his original readers. If we consider why Portnoy's Complaint has endured in its way, we might well learn something interesting about Roth, ourselves, the uses of fiction, and the country that's made room for us since its publication.

Roth has had time and reason to reflect on these questions himself. He was for most of his career a teacher of literature, and the reception of the book fascinated him as a critic, even as it changed his life. It became a subject to work on in later novels, My Life as a Man, Zuckerman Unbound, The Ghost Writer, and others. He and I have spoken many times, in little exchanges, about Portnoy's Complaint since we first got to know each other back in 1974—particularly since the early 1980s, as talk deepened into banter and teasing and friendly counsel. Portnoy's insatiable, lampooning voice has never been very far beneath the surface of our talk; any moment of gloom would be helpless against its timing. (Bernard! What are you doing in there!)

Perhaps the most considered statement Roth made about his book was in teaching notes he prepared for a class on his work at Bard College, in the fall of 1999. They begin as follows:

A polemic mood.

One is under no constraints with satire.

The grotesque conception of his life and the lives around him is what is being dramatized.

Flies in the face of the normalizing passion.

Caricature? Of course. He holds a grotesque conception of his life and this creates the coarseness of the realism. To criticize R. for not being "balanced" is like criticizing Molière for not being "fair."

Lets the grotesque into the satiric conception of a Jewish family, the son included. The greatest object of the satire is the narrating Portnoy!

Two things jump out, and they seem of a piece. The first is Roth's depiction of Portnoy's narrative—his character's grasp of his recounted life—as "grotesque." This implies a skepticism about Portnoy, and a seriousness of purpose in his creator, that one might not have supposed, given how clever Portnoy seems and how hard he's made us laugh.

Didn't "the narrating Portnoy" simply take the author's own voice to a new level of astringency and allow him to say things with "no constraints"? No, it did not. A novel in the form of a confession is, for God's sake, not a confession in the form of a novel. Roth has stressed the distinction virtually from the time of the publication of Portnoy's Complaint and still felt the need to instruct his Bard students (most of them probably clueless about why he was bothering to tell them this at all) that the author's "balance" was not the point when he invented Portnoy, no more than Molière's "fairness."

"I was trying to break from my literary conscience," Roth continues in his notes, "as it has been constructed by my reading, my teachers, even my fears. The background I was overthrowing was literary." He was determined to "let the repellent in":

Masturbation, which seems to have made the book famous, was the least of it. It was the aggressive rage, the ingratitude, the hatred that was the most shameful secret.

The notes continue:

One is not here as a writer, or as an artist of any kind, to be loved. This is hard to accept, even for a writer. But that's the sad truth.

I had published three responsible books. Responsible to what? Was not looking for my catharsis as patient, a neurotic, a son. Looking, as one perpetually looks, for my freedom as a writer.

Portnoy was a concoction, you see, a way of exploring the Drang before the Sturm in a young man's life. Portnoy's lewdness, rage, ingratitude, etc., were just a small part of what was wrong with him. Nor, Roth supposed, was making all of this seem natural going to win the author many friends. Portnoy was going to be "the man who is the repository of every socially unacceptable thought," all the more unacceptable for lacking dignity: "They're not even dignified complaints," the notes go on; "They aren't the dignified unacceptable thoughts. They are really the stinky unacceptable thoughts."

Which brings me to the second thing that jumps out from Roth's class notes, the phrase "flies in face of the normalizing passion." Roth does not write "flies in face of the normal," which you'd expect from a satire; satirists usually amuse readers by assuming a desired moral principle, a norm, that's so obviously at odds with some social convention or human foible that satire can ridicule—through humor, irony, and so on—people who fall short. OK, the impulse to conform can itself be amusing. (The hero in Monty Python's Life of Brian, suddenly presumed the messiah, tries to disown his adoring followers: "You are all individuals!" he shouts—to which the crowd answers as one, "Yes, we are all individuals!" One solitary voice pipes up: "I'm not!") But the urge to normalize cannot mean only this fretful kind of conformism. Every satire, like every sentence in a way, is a tribute to the presumption that words aim to set standards—the good to which all things aim, as Aristotle famously put it. I don't mean to get too pedantic here, but "the normalizing passion" suggests an ethical, not just a psychological, impulse. Satirists from Jonathan Swift to George Carlin implicitly projected a new normal. If they did not, how could they shame public figures, or readers, for that matter, into improvement?

But Roth seems to be signaling something intriguing, if not unique, about the book's hero: a voice that gives us no clue to the normal, because it can never seem to impeach other voices without impeaching its own as well. ("'I haven't gained five pounds,' she says, 'since you were born. Feel,' she says, and holds my stiff fingers against the swell of her hips, which aren't bad ... ")

The book, Roth goes on, is distinctive for its apparent "improvisational chaos," which mirrors Portnoy's mania, his unwillingness to be "constrained by his moral conscience": "One is not here as a writer, or as an artist of any kind, to be loved."

Yet for all of Roth's protestations, I bet most of those Bard students, like countless readers before them, have loved Roth for this book. They could not assume that Portnoy's story was simply grotesque. They could not assume that Portnoy's voice was, first and foremost, self-satirizing. Portnoy remained adorable somehow, the consummate stand-up comic, his parents and lovers the justified targets of his petulance, the character through which Roth liberated his voice and his spirit. It has been hard to see Roth's protagonist as a mere literary device. It still is—harder than ever, maybe. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?

Let me not beat around the bush. Sure, Roth's great book gave "the narrating Portnoy" scope to rail against what was comic, even grotesque, in families—Jewish families, WASP families, immigrant families. We laughed and mocked and blushed. And the sex—ah, the talk of sex—was right there, first alone in the bathroom, then with Portnoy's immortal dreamboat, the Monkey ("Did I eat!"), and finally, in a wave of impotence, in a Tel Aviv hotel.

The writer Nelson Aldrich remembers the "refreshing relief" of being able to think about masturbation especially as a form of cultural insurgency. And Portnoy's Complaint had other firsts, at least for my generation: riffs on pompous clergy, too-righteous-by-half liberals, too-smug-by-three-quarters Israelis. None of these explain the book's iconic status as the 60s' most iconoclastic work.

Rather, Portnoy's Complaint also gave readers the sound of a psychoanalytic room, yet there was no way to judge or sympathize with what we were hearing—no vantage point, no moral pivot, nothing but an eavesdropping on analysand and analyst, both of whom seemed verging on parody. Roth presumed an audience familiar with the rhythms of the psychoanalytic project, or half-mischievously half-presumed it. The rhetorical gambit is what made satire of "the normalizing passion" even conceivable.

Roth picks up this point himself in the teaching notes:

Psychoanalysis provided the vessel for everything. In psychoanal. nothing is too petty, nothing is too grand. The place where you're allowed to say anything. Allows for hatred, aggression, pettiness; nothing censored. If that's the bargain, that's the bargain. Coarse realism. Any type of exaggeration is permissible. It takes the liberties for you.

Roth was determined (so he adds) to take Freud's dark wisdom "as seriously as possible"—to see family relations as dramatic, not only as primary experience, but because they were set off against the backdrop of Freud's mythic theories of evolving personality. Constraints were necessarily gone, not only because satire invited it, but therapy demanded it. So Portnoy's madness seemed true without purporting to make the book's readers sane.

Harold Bloom writes that Portnoy's Complaint left readers pulling for a character whose ambition and self-subversion could never be told apart; that Roth forced us to feel ourselves in a state of anxious futility with Portnoy, like the proverbial Jew who is told: "Sleep faster, we need the pillows."

And the Jewish home was just the right place to find such a character, a place where the superego had gained a 5,000-year head start. This hardly made Roth a Jewish writer. It made Jews useful to an American satirist on the way to becoming a tragedian. ("Jews are members of the human race," Roth penned onto his typed notes; "worse than that I cannot say about them.") Portnoy's push into America was archetypal: relentless, carnal, and doomed. Every journey of ambition was bound to blow up in its own fuel. The synagogue bulletin suggested, too, stories worthy of Sherwood Anderson; a few weeks with the Monkey could leave even a lascivious Jew as restless as Gatsby himself.

One might conclude that the hero of the novel must then be the forbearing Dr. Spielvogel. Certainly it was hard to hear all the kvetching and not sense what Spielvogel must have been thinking, that freedom was not the complaint (or not the only one), that narcissism could become what Christopher Lasch would call "a culture." Alas, the enigma of Portnoy's Complaint is bigger yet. For the novel leaves us with the lingering suspicion that the analyst, too, was a little too prone to extreme inventions; that he represented an orthodoxy that thought it had an explanation for everything, from pleasure to process—that psychoanalysis took "liberties" for Spielvogel, too.

Not coincidentally—so Roth finished his class—every normalizing passion had a way of turning orthodox and thus quite possibly vicious. The key moment in the book, he said, is when Uncle Hymie beats up Cousin Heshie just for entertaining the idea of marrying a shiksa—a show of brutality in the most conventional sense:

The truly repellent, but not on the Dost. scale. Not murder. Not Genet—not theft and sodomy. No, the truly repellent at the local domestic level. That which is brutal and is everywhere.

That which is brutal and is everywhere. Did Portnoy's Complaint, in shaming such brutality, wind up defending the biggest norm of them all, or at least the most Yankee: that we must question everything, taking our liberties where we cannot justify denying them? Is the narrating Portnoy America's classical fool, his vulgarity bringing us to our senses?

I confess, as if we need more confessions, that I undertake this writing feeling a bit of a fool myself. You have to be as fresh, or vain, as Portnoy to think you could write about Portnoy's Complaint. Readers like disquisitions on books about as much as they like a cousin's snapshots of Prague. 

 And they have been on particularly intimate terms with this book. Portnoy's Complaint is about everything that matters, which is to say everything that hurts. You want rapture? There is rapture. You want meaning? Portnoy is a sucker for rapture as meaning, though his most solid experience of it is a hard-on with a farcically short half-life. The book is ostensibly about Portnoy's perverse desire in particular. But once it has done its work, what more is there to say about desire in general? Portnoy's Complaint evokes our most daunting time of life. Dickens lives on because he speaks to the bullied, ambitious child in us. Salinger speaks to a teenager's rejection of phonies. Roth, in contrast, speaks to and through the nervous young person who lives on in us more resiliently; speaks to that hyper-precious moment when the child goes into eclipse, the teen having long before been launched, and adult pleasures (bodies, risk, power) and their surprising allies (dissembling, aggression, moral equivocation) present themselves. 

What is to be made of a satire whose target slides under our hands—from family and lover, to analysand, to analyst—and so seems to keep us sliding on? "A wonderful fact to reflect upon," Dickens writes, famously, in A Tale of Two Cities, "that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other." Portnoy's Complaint shows us as few books have how we rely on our capacity to invent fictions about one another to establish our singularity and strive against its loneliness.

Roth told the PBS interviewer Jeffrey Brown in 2004 that the only cause he was ever "advancing" was the cause of literature—"one of the great lost human causes," which America may not be bothering with in the foreseeable future. You "do your bit for fiction," which "doesn't get you any less stupid as you age."

There is a kind of faith here, in "doing your bit," though I am not revealing anything not obvious when I say Roth's attitude toward religious sentimentality is not kind. "Redemption? Isn't that when you bring Green Stamps to the supermarket?," he once mocked me.

Still, Portnoy reveals a mysterious courage in his complaining, and Roth knows it. Portnoy's mix of disappointment, ambition, rage, and recalcitrant desire has "repetition compulsion" written all over it, yet he keeps going. For our part—the readers of Portnoy's Complaint—we read with a courage of our own. We want, and want! and WANT, things to be different for us.

Bernard Avishai is an adjunct professor of business at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth College. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, Promiscuous: "Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness, published last month by Yale University Press.