Portnoy's Complaint by was written in 1969 and was the book that put Philip Roth on the map. The tale is told from the point of view of Alexander Portnoy in a stream of consciousness style of monologue directed at an unheard psychoanalyst. Portnoy is intelligent, self aware and highly literate. He is also neurotic, insecure, a narcissist, a sex-crazed womanizer and is very vulgar, especially in regards to bodily functions and masturbation. The novel alternates in time between the Portnoy’s childhood and adult adventures.
This is a brilliant character study. It hilariously plumbs the psychology and social interactions of Portnoy, who is alternately likable and unlikeable to the point of being reprehensible. The constant commentary is very often extremely crude and unfiltered. Portnoy views and describes sexuality as well as other biological functions in extremely uncouth terms. In my opinion the sexuality is ribald and usually not erotic. Many readers will be offended while others may be simply disgusted. Though I loved this book and found it often hilarious, and consider myself relatively thick skinned, the over the top diatribe was even a bit much for me at times. In addition, Portnoy can be a very unpleasant character. In real life, his self-absorption would be tediously annoying, and he treats women as sex objects, to name just a couple of his character flaws. On the other hand, I find his portrayal to be realistic. I have known people who speak and seem to think a lot like Portnoy.
Some have taken Roth to task about this work, as the characters often express sexist, racist and otherwise anti–social views. I find this angle of criticism unfounded. It seems relatively obvious that this work is not advocating these views. Though Portnoy has his virtues and at times is extremely insightful, when he behaves badly, the reader clearly does not laugh with him, but rather laughs at him.
There is a lot here. This novel is a fantastic and complex character study. There are so many avenues one can ponder. One of many things that this novel succeeds in being is an exploration, and perhaps a parody, of Freudianism. Roth often approaches this from a humorous angle.
The ideas of Sigmund Freud are brimming all over the narrative. Portnoy’s actions and thoughts are a torrent of Freudian concepts relating to guilt, the Id, ego and super-ego, castration anxiety, neurotic guilt, infantile sexual abuse, symbolism in dreams, etc. At certain points in the narrative, the protagonist even reads and obsesses over Freud. On one level, this work can be viewed as the fictional representation of how these influences play out in the real life of a person.
For instance, Portnoy recalls a strong erotic attraction to his mother that is pure Freud.
“While I crayon a picture for her, she showers— and now in the sunshine of her bedroom, she is dressing to take me downtown. She sits on the edge of the bed in her padded bra and her girdle, rolling on her stockings and chattering away. Who is Mommy’s good little boy? Who is the best little boy a mommy ever had? Who does Mommy love more than anything in the whole wide world? I am absolutely punchy with delight, and meanwhile follow in their tight, slow, agonizingly delicious journey up her legs the transparent stockings that give her flesh a hue of stirring dimensions. I sidle close enough to smell the bath powder on her throat— also to appreciate better the elastic intricacies of the dangling straps to which the stockings will presently be hooked.”
In similar Freudian fashion, he describes his murderous rage at his father.
“I would have only to leap across the dinner dishes, my fingers aimed at his windpipe, for him instantaneously to sink down beneath the table with his tongue hanging out.”
Lest we be too quick to label this novel as the uncritical acceptance of these ideas, there seems to be something else going on here. The references to the theories of Freud can be found on almost every page. They involve all kinds of over the top and ludicrous thoughts and situations. Less of a serious depiction of these concepts, at times this book is closer to parody.
At one point, the protagonist himself wonders if all these connections, explanations and childhood associations are worth so much time and angst and even if they are real or not,
“Whew! Have I got grievances! Do I harbor hatreds I didn’t even know were there! Is it the process, Doctor, or is it what we call “the material”? All I do is complain, the repugnance seems bottomless, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe enough isn’t enough. I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public. Could I really have detested this childhood and resented these poor parents of mine to the same degree then as I seem to now, looking backward upon what I was from the vantage point of what I am— and am not? Is this truth I’m delivering up…..”
So is this story a satiric exploration of Freudian ideology from the point of view of a neurotic character? Or, instead, is it a savage critique of the theories and the impact that these ideas have had upon society? I think that it may be a little bit of both. The ideas of Freud have had an enormous impact upon our culture and are important to understand. When applied to a character as Roth does here, they create a fascinating case study. At the same time they have been employed in all kinds of, what seems to me, ridiculous interpretations of human behavior. Thus, I believe one can analyze these ideas while, in some ways, also mock them. It seems that this is exactly what Roth is doing in this work.
This is a very funny and lively character study. There is a lot more here then the musings about the Freudian thought system. Many of Roth’s favorite themes appear here including his ubiquitous examinations of human identity. As usual, I have only scratched the surface. This book is not, however, for the faint of heart. As mentioned above, it is exceedingly raunchy. In addition, those looking for a completely likeable main character will not be happy with the narcissistic, womanizing Alexander Portnoy. However, those who can deal with these raw elements may find this is a thoughtful, engaging and hilarious novel.
For those with further interest in Roth: