I managed to pick this up cheap the other day, and after all the fuss about Roth winning the Man Booker International Prize earlier in the year, I was curious to know just what kind of author he was. I’ve heard a lot about him from a lot of people, and most of it has been pretty positive. I also didn’t want to commit to starting the Zuckerman series, because I didn’t want to get it wrong. So this seemed like a good starting point.
Alex Portnoy has a problem – his mother. The woman just won’t leave him alone, despite his having passed thirty, and having a rather swanky public service job crusading for human rights. As he tells his therapist about his life, and just how terrible his mother is, he detours and twists to explain just why he can’t seem to have a proper, fulfilling relationship with any woman, and why, maybe, he just doesn’t really care. Or does he?
Portnoy’s Complaint was written more than forty years ago, but I was constantly surprised at just how modern and alive it felt. Turn Portnoy into any of the other minority groups that are now living the American dream thanks to their enterprising parents, and you’ll probably end up with a similar tension and anger that permeates this novel. Portnoy is a very, very angry young man – there’s no doubt about that. He blames his overbearing, smothering mother for the problems he now has with women; he seems to hate white Americans because of their white privilege, while at the same time wanting desperately to be a part of the cool group; he hates being Jewish, because he doesn’t even believe in God. Replace any of these with, say, Muslim immigrants, or Asian immigrants, or African immigrants, and you can see how much of an influence authors like Roth have had on immigrant literature in America.
At the same time, though, there is something deeply, inherently Jewish about Roth’s writing. Alex’s mother issues – which are really family issues more than anything else – stem from this weird relationship he has with his parents and what they represent. They are first generation Jewish immigrants, complete with English studded with Yiddish. (Seriously, there’s a lot of Yiddish in this novel, though I understood about 90% of it, so it doesn’t make anything unreadable.) Despite him being in his early thirties, his parents are still on his back for not having settled down with a nice (Jewish) girl and having some grandchildren. They – his mother in particular – see it as an affront to all they have done for Alex that he doesn’t even have to common decency to provide them with grandchildren.
Of course, whether this is an accurate portrayal of his parents is the ultimate question. Told as a bizarre stream of consciousness to his therapist, there is no reason to trust Alex as a narrator. For all we know, he could be exaggerating everything – his parents may even be lovely people. But I think we can all identify with Alex, even just a little – we all of us have had moments in our lives when, even though we’ve grown up and moved out of the parental house, our parents still get on our nerves for the littlest of things.
Stylistically, too, Roth is masterful. Alex’s voice is carefully balanced between the literary and the conversational, the intelligent and the crude. I love a good bit of (appropriate) swearing in a novel, and Roth does not disappoint. If you are in any way offended by descriptions of masturbation, intense threesomes, or even raunchy descriptions of lady bits, you would be well advised to not read Portnoy’s Complaint. For those of us who do enjoy all of these things, though, there’s a lot to love here. I know some people are mortally offended by swearing, and think it vulgar and unintelligent, but a well timed expletive can be just as devastating and effective as anything else. On a similar note, I’ve never seen the word c**t in print quite so many times as I have in this novel.
I hesitate to compare Roth to a 21st century sitcom character, but if anyone’s seen The Big Bang Theory, there’s an excellent analogy to be made. Alex Portnoy is the precursor to Howard Wolowitz, and all of those slightly messed up, sexually frustrated, mother-issue-laden young Jewish men that are now so popular in, well, pop culture. Portnoy’s Complaint carries its age well – there’s a verve and energy throughout Roth’s writing that makes him fun to read. I’m eager to find more.