I had a discussion with colleagues about authors that we’re embarrassed we hadn’t read, and the usual suspects came up for the young ‘uns: Milton, Spenser, Dante, and so on. Kids these days don’t read, I guess…
Having been the product of a proud liberal arts tradition I have read those folks (loved Spenser, misread Milton along with the rest of my punk rock associates, didn’t get Dante at all although I now completely understand the desire to punish one’s enemies by banishing them to h – e – double hockey sticks), but I have never read Roth, whose novels seem to always be high on the list of those-read-by-erudite-people. I’m not one of those, but I thought I’d try, so I read Portnoy’s Complaint.
I’m still not sure if that was a good idea.
I felt like the novel wasn’t written for me, at least reading it now. In 1969 it was probably revolutionary, but now it felt like a too-long Seinfeld episode, and not one of the best ones. So, a couple of quick notes:
- It felt in a sense like How To Build a Girl, a novel I enjoyed a lot more. That’s probably not fair (and thus my comment that I’m reading these too late), because I know all the music in HTBG, and while she’s unlikeable she also comes from a position that to me feels clearly lower on the cultural power scale.
- Portnoy is unlikeable, but that didn’t bug me as much as the way that Roth makes him unlikeable…the novel takes place in a psychiatrist’s office, and is one long monologue, and seems to words that I hate (the n word, the c word, etc.) and denigrate the wrong folks just to make his point. I’m not sure that any of the action actually took place.
- I suppose it’s comic, but it’s one of those that I read thinking that whoever said that doesn’t share the same taste in comedy as I do. It’s so relentlessly male (and obsessed with penises and sexual conquests) that I got sick of the narrator’s immense ego (all the while complaining that being Jewish robbed him of the ability to feel superior).
- My favorite part took place near the end, as he describes discovering that his life of debauchery has made him impotent (the final big joke, at least until the last line in which his psychiatrist says that now the session can start, apparently not having heard the previous 4000 pages). His portrayal of Israel in the 50s and 60s as the kibbutz/socialist heaven (and the type of women that that environment produced) awoke fantasies of my own from reading about kibbutzes in the 80s.