The Good: Narrative voice, humor, plot, character
The Bad: Resolution
The Basics: Recommended as the essential piece of Jewish-American humor literature, Portnoy's Complaint is an American classic chronicling a single life in this weird country.
Portnoy's Complaint is one of those novels that was very popular in the 1960s when it was originally released and then sunk into obscurity outside an academic setting. That is, much of the liberties the novel take by exploring many different subjects, have fallen into obscurity or dispopularity in the mass culture. It's a shame.
Portnoy's Complaint follows the kvetching of one 33 year-old Jewish man in his psychotherapy sessions. Alexander Portnoy is a man obsessed with his mother and, in an attempt to liberate himself from her overbearing presence, his genitals.
The novel is basically a monologue about a guy who is obsessed with various sexual acts (most of them autoerotic) in an attempt to reconcile the world he is miserable in with the comforts of his own hedonism. It's a fun book to read because the protagonist is obsessed with fun.
But, of course, there's more to the story and that's the reason the work is enduring. Alexander Portnoy's struggle is actually a very real one, the attempt to fit into a world where he is almost constantly an outsider. He grows up feeling the racial persecution of the Jewish people living in the United States and attempts to suppress his cultural identity as such in his interactions in public, though he is convinced his physiology gives him away. Moreover, there is no denying his heritage as he observes his parents, whom he loathes on many levels.
Portnoy's Complaint relates the essential struggle of being an outsider; the desire to be an individual in a world filled with groups, being discontent with the group you're places in, yet uncomfortable with the larger group that is "Society."
The novel succeeds in its voice. Portnoy has a very distinctive style and his meandering monologues are often humorous and heartfelt. His is a tale filled with irony and wit and a great deal of eroticism.
In fact, the only failing of the novel that comes to my mind is in its resolution; the last acts of the novel strike me as uncharacteristic and bothersome. That is, in the end, he begins to act out in ways inconsistent with the way his simple selfishness throughout the rest of the novel seems to indicate.
For other reasonably contemporary novels, please check out my reviews of:
Vineland - Thomas Pynchon
Liliane: Resurrection Of The Daughter - Shange
The Sound And The Fury - William Faulkner
For other book reviews, please check out my index page!
© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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