The 100 best novels: No 86 – Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

RothNo 86 marks a milestone: it’s the first time in this series that we have listed a living writer. From this (1969) publication date, we shall now be addressing contemporary English and American literature, and many living writers. Inevitably, the choice will be correspondingly more difficult. Portnoy’s Complaint is the novel that made Philip Roth an international literary celebrity, an iconic book that changed everything for the writer, pitching him headlong into a relentless world of banal public curiosity. After Portnoy, his working life became dominated by answering questions about the inter-relationship of fact and fiction in his writing. Roth’s response has been to take refuge in a variety of alter egos, notably Nathan Zuckerman. He will never again hold forth as brilliantly or as memorably as he does in this novel. The context of Portnoy’s hilarious, ranting monologue is established on the closing page. “So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

Alexander Portnoy lies on the couch. Dr Spielvogel sits behind, listening to a subject that is, says Roth, “so difficult to talk about and yet so near at hand”. In short, masturbation, and its corollary, satyromania. To facilitate his solitary lust, Portnoy commands a far richer arsenal of sex aids than most horny young men: old socks, his sister’s underwear, a baseball glove and – notoriously – a slice of liver for the Portnoy family dinner. This is a “talking cure” as Freud never envisaged it, a farcical monologue by – this is Roth again – “A lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”, a tirade that would “put the id into yid”. Alex is an archetypal Jewish-American son, coincidentally the same age as his creator, and a former “honour student” who’s now working in New York as a civil rights lawyer. His mother would have preferred him to become a doctor, marry and have children, but we are all too aware that her wishes will never be part of her son’s adult life. Alex free associates for Spielvogel with a wild frenzy that some have suggested is owed to the standup comics of Roth’s youth, and perhaps near-contemporaries such as Lenny Bruce. Roth’s response has been to identify his main influence as “a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka”.

More here.