What a weird book. I say this in the nicest way, but I’m not sure if I could have ever envisioned a combination of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Joshua Braff’s The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green (except even more Jewish). And yet, here it is, one of Roth’s (himself one of the titans of American literature in the latter 20th century) most famous works.
What expectations, exactly, can one have for a book with chapter titles like “Cunt Crazy”? Were it anyone besides Roth, I might think this book to exist merely for its own shock value. And indeed, its infamy preceeds it, but after reading it, I find myself almost unconcerned with the sexual extremes of the book (which, admittedly, are passé after reading books like Choke or Ellis’ American Psycho) and more fascinated by the clearly Freudian themes and the way in which Roth manages to tie the incestuous strings of Alexander Portnoy’s sexual dementia to the perverse nature of the cloistered nature of a typical 1950s Jewish family.
Essentially an extended monologue of the main character, Alexander Portnoy, to his German (Jewish?) psychiatrist, it is a winding, abstruse story teetering on the edge of stream-of-consciousness, but always kept in the realm of scripted narrative by Roth’s tendency for elegant prose—even when full of hyphens and digressions. I’ve yet to get all the subtext from the book, and beguilingly enough, Roth basically sets up the main conflict before the story even begins. The front page contains this as a forward:
Portnoy’s Complaint n. [after Alexander Portnoy (1933- )] A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature. Spielvogel says: ‘Acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus are plentiful; as a consequence of the patient’s “morality,” however, neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration.’ (Spielvogel, O. “The Puzzled Penis,” Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, Vol. XXIV p. 909.) It is believed by Spielvogel that many of the symptoms can be traced to the bonds obtaining in the mother-child relationship.
I grapple, then, with what the reader is intended to take from a careful reading of the book. Is it perhaps just Roth’s way of saying, “Oi vey!” and pointing a figure at Jewish mothers? Is it really perhaps just a shock piece? Is it semi-autobiographical (I’ve heard such murmurings)? I’m not sure of any of this yet, but I will say that it was an excellent book, and recommend it if you’ve got the grapes.