Wednesday, 1 September 2010
Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is the ramblings of Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst Dr Speilvogel. Portnoy is afflicted with a condition that results in uncontrollable and often perverse sexual impulses. Over the course of the book Portnoy details his compulsion to masturbate as a teenager and various lewd sexual encounters as an adult in an attempt to discover what has caused his affliction. We learn that he feels trapped between his need to delve deeper into degradation in search of sexual enjoyment and his overiding sense of shame at his actions. Portnoy begs of Spielvogel: Is my condition the result of the orthodoxy of growing up in Jewish America? Can I attribute it to my obsessive relationship with my overbearing and repressive mother? Does my bowel-challenged father have something to do with it? Or, am I just a symptom of society - the American male of the times?
Written in the late 1960s, the books' heavy sexual content made it something of a scandal and in some parts of the world it was actually banned. With chapters titled 'Whacking Off', Roth makes no attempt to hide the main theme of his book. Though times have changed, I'd venture to say that some readers would still find the contents confronting and a little too sexually explicit. You've been warned!!
So, what is Portnoy's monologue all in aid of? As I said before, I'm still a little uncertain. Roth is obviously passing comment on society at the time, but Portnoy's Complaint is not so much a social commentary as it is one man's exploration of his own condition - an attempt at self-diagnosis, if you like. One criticism I have of the book is its' length. I think Roth could have achieved the same result in under 200 pages as he has in 300, but it's a minor flaw. The books strength for me is Roth's wit. I don't find many books laugh-out-loud funny, but this one had me roaring. (3.5 Stars)
Portnoy's Complaint is listed in the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. For your chance to win a copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die please see our Giveaway in our recent post.
Portnoy's Complaint was also recently the subject of discussion on the First Tuesday Book Club on ABC TV. To download what the experts had to say, or see a transcript of the show, just click here.