Customer Review

78 of 90 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Impotent Mensch, April 3, 2001
This review is from: Portnoy's Complaint (Paperback)
Portnoy's Complaint is one of the most wildly inventive books I have ever read. The book, long considered a classic if for nothing more than its amazingly effective stream-of consciousness technique, is a Roth tour-de-force of macabre emotions, painful truth, and biting sarcasm. The story as such concerns a middle-aged Jewish man, Alex Portnoy ranting to his analyst about the struggles of growing up Jewish in a world populated by goyim. The book is framed as one big monologue in which Alex tells us about everything from his mother's fanatical devotion to the rules of eating kosher to his relationships with women. What's so striking about the book is the sheer strength of will on which it floats. The book plows ahead with its ugly, hilarious, painful, unbearable, engaging, sick narrator with nary a break in between. In attempting to find a cure for why Alex is so sex-obsessed, he at first seems to believe his mother's doting on him is the primary cause. Gradually, however, the reader (as well as Alex) becomes aware that Alex also suffers from a more subtle but affecting problem. The man is a classic text-book narcissist. He masturbates nearly every waking moment as a teenager not as a way of finding sexual gratification from the nature of his relationship with his mother, but because he is so self-absorbed that the act itself is a form of lust (for the self). This haunting narcissism is ultimately what causes him to never be able to commit to a woman seriously, and why he scars The Monkey so terribly (and memorably in a Rome hotel room), demeans the Italian hooker, and nearly rapes a woman in the Holy Land. He feels that by gaining control over these women, he will somehow become more potent himself. Thus, he gets his sexual gratification by inflicting pain on women. Mistakenly, this book is labelled as misogynistic because of alex's terrible crimes. But there's a clear distinction between the narrator's persona and what Roth is really trying to impart to the reader. The characters in the book are all sharply drawn. The memorable moments abound (try not to stand with mouth wide open as Alex describes defiling the family's dinner) or try refraining from expressing disgust at the inhumane way he treats the Monkey. This book is full of emotional honesty and pain. It is about not just Alex's obsession, but about the struggle that everyone experiences to escape the narrowness of our own lives. In that way, despite his reprehensible behavior, Alex represents a kind of hero. An unlikely one, perhaps, but a hero nonetheless. It is this aspect of the book that is most satisfying. Mr. Roth also vividly recreates Alex's childhood in Newark and Jersey City including priceless characterizations of Sophie and Jack, his parents. However, the book skimps on the other characters, especially Alex's sister, Hannah. Also, there are many minor characters mentioned that pop in and out of the book with no real explanation. Aunt Clara, for example, appears early in the book, and then is mentioned in a single sentence more than a hundred pages later. These inconsistencies lower the star rating slightly. The other, more important flaw in the book is the nature of alex's "Complaint". As I mentioned earlier, the reader gradually realizes the real symptom of the illness, but the book seems to keep believing that it is Mrs. Portnoy who causes Alex to be so sexually inept and voracious. It's almost as if Roth wants to convery the more subtle problem and keeps the bits with mom in them for shock value and laughs. This aspect is somewhat disappointing. Roth seems to want to have it both ways. Also, the fact that narcissism is the real disease becomes quite clear, and still Roth never delves into the triger for this behavior. For a book that is so specifically about Portnoy's sexual idiosyncracies and inability to be satisfied, there is never a clear link as to why Portnoy channels his insecurity in this manner. This is Roth's (almost) fatal error. He vividly describes the symptoms, but not the cause. Ultimately, the novel is redeemed on the strength of its characters and emotional pain. Although readers may never know precisely why Alex is the way he is, the hilarious, shocking, and at times unbearably sad portrayal of his life is what remains indelible about this book. It's also, I think, why it's reputation is still so high. Overall, i recommend the book with those reservations. Perhaps a bit overrated by the Modern Library, but a landmark book nonetheless. Grade: B+
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 9, 2011 9:54:19 AM PST
I am very certain that it is you who missed the cause (and it seems a good deal of the point of the story) and not the fault of Mr. Roth.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 3:54:13 AM PST
Richard Q says:
Aarash Saatnia's comment cannot be taken seriously as it makes no attempt to enlighten us as to what he thinks is the 'cause and the point of the story', as elaborated at length in an excellent review by Cole:a Reader.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 19, 2014 12:51:47 PM PDT
The book is not a f****** psychology report. The book is well written, has well defined characters, and gives a good laugh; that's what a book is supposed to do! Don't dissuade others from reading the book by only highlighting what YOU think is wrong with it.
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