“Portnoy’s Complaint”

Usually I really like Philip Roth’s work, but I’m afraid “Portnoy’s Complaint” didn’t quite hit the spot.

Written as one huge monologue, the language used – relaxed, conversational – certainly fits the bill; and having been promised something explosively funny, there were undeniably ‘laugh out loud’ moments. Having said that, however, the book poses a number of challenges.

  • is it all a little too chaotic, perhaps?
  • does what Roth offer us compensate for a generally unpleasant lead character, one that could make you simply toss the book aside half-way through because you simply don’t care what happens to him?
  • does Roth overdo and belabour Portnoy’s two core obsessions: sex and Jewishness?
  • and how should we feel when the book ends with a self-proclaimed ‘punchline’?

Or is all of the above actually its genius, and what Roth has given us is a tour de force? Without doubt there are moments of insight and pathos, incidents and emotions experienced by Portnoy to which we can – one way or another – relate. Are we supposed to enjoy a slice of self-congratulation that we don’t live our own life as Portnoy does his – or maybe, just maybe, recognise the odd moment when we wish we did..?