What to do with you, Alexander Portnoy?
Portnoy’s Complaint wasn’t intended as young adult literature. But, of the friends I’ve talked to, the ones who liked Philip Roth’s novel best read it as teenagers. Understandable. When else does the anxiety of tantalizingly unrealized desire come close to approaching the fevered pitch to which Alex takes it? The wild fantasies Roth spins in his character’s brain are—if not enriching to the higher instincts or appropriate for class, and despite evincing a despicable sexual politics (there are no female characters; there are women who are symbols and especially objects and there is a force that is his mother, but none are characters)—the kind of titillating invention that makes up two-thirds of teenage guys’ conversation, for this is the only age at which they seem remotely plausible. Alex Portnoy, even as he ages, is a heightened cartoon of a teenage mind, a sort of literary Jackass. Observe and be entertained, guys, but don’t try this at home.
To reduce the book to this core, though, misses the potential moral of the narrative.
From a less-hormonal remove, we see that for all his fantasy and, later, realization of base urges, Alex is empty. His teenage adventures only in his mind, he is doomed to anxious frustration and guilt. When he lives them out, he’s cruel and still guilty. Unable to break himself of pursuing such extreme and objectifying fantasy, Alex is his own antagonist, stymied by his perpetual adolescence. There’s an important lesson for teenagers, especially as today’s pop culture further saturates with rather Portnoy-esque exaggerated images and ideas of sex: this ridiculous fantasy is incompatible with real life.
But on this point, Roth unfortunately undercuts himself to some degree. Unhappy and at as much of a dead end as Alex finds himself, there is a certain authorial gleefulness in the journey. To create the heightened effect of Alex’s mentality, the elaboration of his fantasy must go to certain extremes at certain lengths. But the imagination applied to Portnoy’s hedonism is so much more memorable than his glum and rather predictable moments of self-awareness that Roth’s final judgment of Alex seems almost feigned, an apologetic Our Father to forgive the fun (if you’ll excuse mixing that metaphor with Roth).
The other challenge posed by the book is the effect of being an influential work. Portnoy’s Complaint was groundbreaking and shocking when published, but the imitators Roth spawned have now reduced so much of the book to a cliché. After the first twenty pages, it can start to read as an endless stream of every Freudian, New York intellectual, and Jewish guilt trope that’s been beaten to death for years. As an historical marker, it’s a significant illustration of a voice that has shaped, whether in legacy or reaction, our current writers. But, bayed about in its own ripples, it is deprived of the impact with which it must have originally landed.
In the end, I don’t know how to feel about Portnoy’s Complaint. There is so much to dislike on principle and so much that doesn’t fully work, but it’s nevertheless engrossing. I’m conflicted. And perhaps that’s how it should be.
“Portnoy's Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature...”
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