by Philip Roth
For someone whose only real exposure to Jewish culture growing up was watching "Seinfeld" on TV, "Portnoy's Complaint" seems like a good accompaniment. Looking back from the 21st Century, the life of Alexander Portnoy seems almost like "Seinfeld" if network censors had allowed you to see what went on in the bedroom in all its grisly detail. And like "Seinfeld," Portnoy's neurotic struggle against the opposite sex and his meddling parents is terribly funny.
To do the obligatory plot summary of "Portnoy's Complaint" is difficult because instead of following a traditional plot arc, the story is told in a more stream-of-consciousness way as Portnoy describes his issues to the psychologist we never see or hear. To put the story in a chronological order, Alex Portnoy grew up as the youngest child of Jewish parents in Newark, New Jersey. His father was an insurance salesmen in poor neighborhoods, working 12 hours a day to sell insurance and then coming home to work equally hard to move his bowels. His mother was lord of the manor, overseeing the running of the house while smothering Alex throughout his childhood to the point that he confused his teacher for his mother all through kindergarten. This gives Alex a bit of an Oedipal complex, compounded by a guilt complex from the way his parents use guilt to manipulate him all through high school. Alex seeks refuge in sex--first with himself and then with a variety of women. In 1967 this might have made him seem like a sexual deviant, but now days it's not so shocking--make of that what you will. An affair with an underwear model he labels "The Monkey" for her love of bananas and a disastrous trip to the new state of Israel lead Alex into therapy. The story ends before we know whether the therapy was successful or not.
The way the story is written, it's hard not to laugh even as Alex talks about cultural angst, guilt, and prejudice. Even as he talks about his bedroom escapades, it's still hard not to laugh and that keeps the reader from turning on Alex. If not for the humor it would be easy to see Alex as a whiny, disgusting pervert. Much as it would be easy to see Seinfeld as a womanizing boor if the situations he and his friends landed themselves in weren't so funny. So it's the humor that provides insulation from the most shocking revelations.
The downside of that is being insulated also makes it hard to take the novel as seriously as perhaps one should. Because at the root of Alex's non-linear ramblings are serious issues about bigotry and cultural identity. It's hard to see all that when you're too busy laughing.
I may just be a goy whose only knowledge of Jewish culture comes from sitcoms and books--not that there's anything wrong with that--but I found this book enlightening and entertaining. You should too.
That is all.