By Philip Roth
First Published: 1969
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Comedy
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth is a novel that’s famous for its comedy and for pushing the boundaries at the time it was published in regards to sexual content. The content is no longer as shocking as it was when Portnoy’s Complaint was first published but this is a well written novel that will have you laughing out loud.
At 33 years of age, Alex Portnoy is on the psychiatrist’s couch desperately seeking help for his constant feelings of guilt and for his inability to form lasting relationships. This novel is essentially an extended rant to his phychiatrist about his strict Jewish upbringing, traumatic adolescence, obsessions with sex, and failed romantic relationships told with lots of self-deprecating humor. In his desperation, Alex describes everything he thinks might be important including his most private thoughts and most embarrassing moments while growing up. This makes for a coming of age novel with some absolutely hilarious scenes mixed in with serious thoughts about guilt, parenting, relationships, racism, and religion.
Right from the beginning of Portnoy’s Complaint, we learn that Alex is very gifted intellectually but is emotionally stunted. In the first chapter, we learn that Alex’s mother has been a dominating influence on his life as his over protective and over bearing mother. She has invested all her hopes in Alex and has set impossibly high expectations while she constantly lays feelings of guilt on him. This portrait of Alex’s mother has become the quintessential example of the overbearing Jewish mother. In the second chapter we learn that with adolescence, Alex became obsessed with masturbation which only added to his feelings of guilt. Alex’s obsession with sex continues throughout the novel as it does throughout his life. There are plenty of graphic sex scenes which Alex describes in colorful language, so if this kind of thing bothers you, consider yourself warned.
Some of the scenes involving sex or masturbation are hysterically funny and it’s obvious that more recent novels and movies have borrowed lots of inspiration from Portnoy’s Complaint. The biggest laughs in both Something About Mary and American Pie are only slightly modified from scenes in Portnoy’s Complaint. With the emphasis on “juvenile” humor, you might be worried that the writing quality might also be on the juvenile side but this is most definitely not the case. The monologue from Alex to his psychiatrist is very natural and feels quite realistic. The emotional memories that he recalls come across as being honest and real. While you may not like Alex, you’ll find him honest and believable when he recounts his often painful stories.
This novel doesn’t let up throughout. It is basically a sustained outburst as Alex recalls different events. Alex lets loose in a stream of conscience manner where the retelling of one incident recalls another incident and so on. The stories bounce back and forth in time from childhood to his recent love or lust interests while we learn Alex has more than enough reasons to seek help and we can only imagine the psychiatrist’s satisfaction with this new patient who will obviously provide a steady source of income for years to come.
I highly recommend Portnoy’s Complaint to anyone who wants to read some terrific comedy about growing up and doesn’t mind a preponderance of sex and crude language. Some of the scenes in this novel are as funny as you’ll find in literature.