Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969, is the story of Jewish American bachelor Alex Portnoy, as told in a long, intense monologue, apparently to a therapist. The therapist is effectively invisible, saying nothing, serving as a device to let Portnoy talk. Sometimes a book allows you to identify with a central character. Since, in this case, the reader is identified with a silent therapist, there’s a feeling of being separate from the narrative, listening to this intense individual talking in ruthless detail about his Jewish childhood and subsequent relationship history.
So what did I learn through my patient listening? There was some interesting stuff. Identity was a big thing. Much of the book is informed by what is to be Jewish, even though it’s also about trying to escape such labels. If I could get a word in edgeways I would have said that was interesting.
Even more interesting was the idea of guilt. Alex lives in a society which trains you to be obedient through arbitrary rules, often dietary. The idea is that when the time comes to follow rules that are really important, you’ll be ready. But by then you’ve been so confused by arbitrary regulations, and so bruised by capricious punishment, that it’s hard to tell the difference between valid and ridiculous restrictions.
So, that was thought-provoking. But why am I saying these things? This narrator wasn’t waiting for me to say anything. I was there to listen, not offer an opinion. That summed up a feeling around the book that I didn’t enjoy. Portnoy was so self involved. On one occasion he is amazed that a young woman is upset when he breaks up with her, because it’s really only his feelings that count. You can enjoy the quick-fire anecdotes, and laugh at the scandalous humour, but after a while you want to put the book down and talk to someone less self centred – someone who might actually ask your opinion:
“How’s that Philip Roth book you’re reading?”
“Well, thanks for asking. In my view, it’s funny, unsettling, sometimes nauseating, often interesting, and highly self regarding.”