Hello my dear readers!
First of all, if you have clicked on this post out of interest and have not yet had the ‘birds and the bees’ talk with your respective parental figures, then I would highly suggest that you click the ‘back’ button on your browser and look at this after you’ve had that talk. If, however, you are of the group that has already had this talk then please, feel free to read on.
So. If you’ve read my last blog post, you’re probably aware that as of late I’ve been thoroughly engrossed in Philip Roth’s bestselling novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. And if you know anything about this particular work, then you’ll be able to agree that it is one interesting novel, a tightly packed box of dynamite from 1969 that takes nothing more than to lift its cover and it sets everything alight. Metaphorically, that is.
Let me explain.
Portnoy’s Complaint is a novel first and foremost about sex and psychology. Specifically, the afflictions of one Alexander Portnoy, a self-loathing American Jew, who experiences and represents all of the moral failings and unsavoury desires that could ever exist in a person of Alex’s character. Roth himself, in his notes, even states categorically that Alex is the “repository for every socially unacceptable thought… not even dignified unacceptable thoughts. They are the really stinky unacceptable thoughts” (cited in Avishai, 2012). For Alex, most of these thoughts are, yes, about sex and about everything involved with it. However, quite a large portion of these sex thoughts relate directly to his more pervasive pattern of self-loathing and of finding that his every flaw is the fault of his parents, Sophie and Jack Portnoy. In some cases, his self-loathing has been given to him as a result of his parents’ actions (the knife, the perfectionism, the helicopter parenting, the neuroticism, the list goes on), and it’s quite obvious to see that Alex is suffering from it.
Alex pours out his heart and soul to his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, in a desperate bid to finally find the solutions to his problems. Of course, we don’t find this out until the very end (the ‘Punchline’, so to speak), and Spielvogel says nothing throughout the novel until said point. I must admit, as an almost-psychologist I wanted to hear more of Spielvogel’s side of the story, rather than just hearing about Alex’s rather one-sided string of complaints which seemed almost endless. But, hearing all of Alex’s story made me wonder what kind of a decision I would have made, had I been faced with a client of a similar calibre. Therein lies one beauty of Portnoy’s Complaint: it’s a book that is GOING to make you think, no matter whether you want to or not. And, contrary to many of the other reviews I’ve read, I’ve found that although I am decidedly NOT a male, American, Jewish reader (but rather a female, Australian, Atheist reader), I still managed to pick up on much of the humour that has been said to be “only understood by others in a situation like Portnoy’s”. That said, Portnoy’s Complaint was originally seen to be quite a shocking novel for when it was published, especially within the Jewish communities for it’s portrayal of everything that not only a Jew but no-one should never be. It was put out. IN PUBLIC. WHERE EVERYONE COULD SEE IT. And that was quite a risk for Roth to take when he wrote it. It’s humour came with age, and it got better (sic. more relevant) like a good bottle of wine does over time. Therein lies it’s second merit: Portnoy’s Complaint is a book that anyone can read, and still find some grain of humour (or truth) in it for themselves.
But, for all of it’s wit and capacity to provoke thought, the one other miraculous thing about Portnoy’s Complaint is that IT TEACHES YOU THINGS. My mother initially recommended that I read it when I was on the solid age of 17, fresh into my final year of high school. Of course, I didn’t get around to reading it until three years later, but even now there are some things in there that I had no idea about and now do. I’m not just talking about sex here – I’m talking about life. Trying to get on with one’s parents, and moreover trying to learn how to operate in the big wide world outside my front door. Learning about myself, even. There are elements in Portnoy’s Complaint that virtually everyone can identify with, because Alex is the epitome of everything we’ve ever thought and wondered in our private moments, everything we’ve been to afraid to ask about life and the future, and everything we’ve never been game enough to ruminate on for too long. For me, that was the resonating chord.
On top of that it was well-written and fleshed out! Very insightful, humorous, sarcastic, painful, and very thought-provoking. At once I found myself empathising with and sympathising for Alex. I savoured every word as if it were a drop of water from the last well on the surface of the planet. It was hard not to.
I want to say more, but I fear that if I do there will be more spoilers for the work and I want to avoid doing that. In lieu of further details, I STRONGLY SUGGEST THAT YOU READ PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT! Put it in your diary. Write it on a scrap of paper and pin it to a noticeboard. WRITE IT IN NEON MARKERS ON YOUR BEDROOM MIRROR, if you have to. But you have to read it.
In closing, and before I dash off to my next book, one thing I find the most interesting is that every book I have ever read or heard about that pertains to sex and sexual acts has very strong links to psychology. Doesn’t that say something about the essential nature of humans? I cite the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James, and also The Bride Stripped Bare by Nikki Gemmell (which will be appearing on this blog very soon). I’m sure there are many other novels out there that talk about this odd relationship, which Freud investigated in great depth as did Masters & Johnson and Alfred Kinsey.
On the flip side, sex and psychology also often link to trauma, sexual or otherwise, an important point to keep in mind when reading books like the Fifty Shades trilogy and even to some extent Portnoy’s Complaint. Because it’s not just physical trauma, but emotional trauma, that can cause so much damage to a person and result in many hours spent pouring one’s terrible, terrible past to a psychologist/psychiatrist.
Portnoy’s Complaint has so many facets to it that it boggles the mind.
I’ll leave further interpretations to you, my dear readers.
Never stop reading!
Avishai, B. Portnoy’s Enduring Complaint. From: http://chronicle.com/article/article-content/131823/, May 13, 2012.