Portnoy’s Complaint (port’-noiz kəm-plānt’) 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,” International Zeitschrift fur 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.
This little introduction is not even on a numbered page in the edition that I purchased; it is not found on one of the pages marked with lower-case Roman numerals usually reserved for prefatory information (i, ii, and so forth).
It just appears, intrepid, indifferent, staring up at the unsuspecting reader on the unnumbered page opposite the copyright information and foretelling the coming of a very strange story.
Inquisitive and attentive readers will discover from information found opposite this preface that in 1956 Georgie Yeats renewed the copyright to Simon and Schuster's The Poems of William Butler Yeats: A New Edition, out of which was taken an excerpt of everyone's favorite bestiality poem, Leda and the Swan, for use by Philip Roth in Portnoy's Complaint.
Standing in Blue Bicycle Books at 420 King Street in Charleston (where they “buy books, sell them, and occasionally, when circumstances are just right, have been known to read them”), with sand and ocean salt from Folly Beach comfortably between my toes, I picked up Portnoy's Complaint, opened it to the copyright page, and in an nanosecond without having to actually read the text, the words
bypassed my cerebrum, briefly toured my cerebellum, and then hit that ancestral part of my brain responsible for base libido functions like a lawn dart covered in blowfish poison.
I'm not going to lie to you; this is my kind of literature: introspective erotica that simultaneously reminds you to feel guilty for even thinking about getting a hard-on; the kind of literature that any self-respecting mother who came of age before the sexual revolution would admire.
If you are not familiar with Philip Roth, he's an impressive and accomplished writer. He has won innumerable awards for his literature, including the coveted and elusive Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for American Pastoral, a book which I have been told that I need to read. I knew these things, and thus I was somewhat surprised (pleasantly, I'll concede) to find Portnoy's Complaint to be so openly salacious.
In Portnoy's Complaint, the story's narrator and chief protagonist is Alexander Portnoy, a Jewish kid born in New Jersey to a chronically constipated father and an overbearing mother who informs Alex's entire life sexual experience in not a good way. The story can be summarized as Alex Portnoy's sexual pilgrimage to hell, and parts of it are fucking funny.
The second chapter of the book, which begins on page 17, is titled “Whacking Off.” It commences thusly:
Then came adolescence - half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out.He goes on:
Or else I was doubled over my flying fist, eyes pressed closed but mouth wide open, to take that sticky sauce of buttermilk and Clorox on my own tongue and teeth - though not infrequently, in my blindness and ecstacy, I got it all in the pompadour.And this continues for several pages, including one hi-larious scene in which he orbits a load into the air and part of it sticks to the single naked light bulb illuminating the bathroom:
So galvanic is the effect of cotton panties against my mouth - so galvanic is the word “panties” - that the trajectory of my ejaculation reaches startling new heights: leaving my joint like a rocket it makes right for the light bulb overhead, where to my wonderment and horror, it hits and hangs.After delicately cleaning the light bulb, Alex is terrified that he is going to leave some trace of his illicit activities behind for his mother to find. He says, “I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off - the sticky evidence is everywhere!” Tell me that's not funny.
(Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment makes a rare appearance in a book about jerking off)
Historically, the cleaning-up phase after masturbation is closely associated with the guilt phase, where if you are going to feel any sort of remorse for tethering the blimp, it will occur most acutely during clean-up rather than during the act itself. Your psychologist will explain to you that this has something to do with our fear of “making a mess” - an idea as anathema to the traditional American mother as molecular biology is to a Free-Will Baptist.
My favorite line in chapter two of the book is “LENORE LAPIDUS'S ACTUAL TITS” (all caps in original; p. 21). You'll have to read the book to see what that is about. I almost changed the name of the blog to LENORE LAPIDUS'S ACTUAL TITS, and I still might. We'll see.
Later, Alex gets his first hand-job from a girl named Bubbles Girardi who he describes as “weighing a hundred and seventy pounds and growing a mustache.” After the application of duress from one of Alex's friends, Bubbles reluctantly agrees to the task and before Alex can get his pants all the way down, “suddenly she has hold of it, and it's as though my poor cock has got caught in some kind of machine. Vigorously, to put it mildly, the ordeal begins.”
We've all been there.
As a college student and later as an adult who is superbly successful with his career as a lawyer fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, Alex has several different relationships with various women (The Pumpkin, The Monkey, The Pilgrim, &c.), all of which end in miserable failure.
In one case, Alex discovers that one of the girls, The Monkey - who is spectacularly hot - is functionally illiterate. He arrives at her apartment early one night while she is in the shower and finds a nearly illegible note on the coffee table and reads it. “Has a child been here, I wonder,” he says.
He is horrified to discover that the note was written to him by The Monkey. Despite the fact that The Monkey is two fathoms out of his league in terms of physical attractiveness, the fact that she cannot spell essentially ruins the relationship for him.
I had a similar situation with a girl from northern Minnesota that I dated for a while. English was like a second language to her, which would have been ok if there had been a first language.
She spoke and wrote a Scandinavian-English hybrid that to anyone familiar with either appeared to be an altogether unfamiliar third language invented by a set of deaf illiterate twins. A love note is just not quite the same with shit spelled wrong in it. It's just not.
Overall, Portnoy's Complaint has no discernible plot progression; it is fundamentally a stream-of-consciousness work in which the impossibly randy narrator describes simultaneously his indefatigable lust and the inescapable sense of shame that accompanies every gooey nut he blows.
There are no groundbreaking literary techniques in the book, and the writing style is fairly familiar if not overused. Roth's protagonist comes off sounding a lot like Holden Caulfield, a character who doubtless would have talked more about beating off if he had been invented in 1967 rather than in 1951.
The storyline does move around in time quite a bit, and that is probably the best aspect of the book. Roth flashes backward and forward and sideways, and I imagine it was difficult to put together a seamless story like Portnoy's Complaint with so much temporal manipulation.
The idea is that Alex is recounting his puzzling past to his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, so the story necessarily jumps around a bit in the telling as different memories resurrect other associated memories out of the obscurity of the past. In this way, Alex is kind of like a brainy, Jewish Benjy Compson who, after realizing that Caddy doesn't smell like trees anymore, tries to fuck her in the ass.
Roth does not disclose to the reader right away that the book is in fact a one-sided dialogue between Alex and Dr. Spielvogel (the latter does not speak until the very last line of the book); however, this fact is enigmatically revealed fairly early in the book by Alex's offhanded and obscure references to the doctor, somewhat reminiscent of Nabokov's “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” asides in Lolita. (Picnic, lightning.)
While much of the book is quite funny in the same way that a good comedy routine is funny, there are two jokes in the book that Roth sets up expertly and makes the reader wait for the punchline long enough to make them really worthwhile. One has to do with why Alex's second girlfriend is given the nickname “The Monkey.” I can't remember the other joke right now, but I'm pretty sure there was one.
The edition that I have is 274 pages long, and I doubt there is a red-blooded American male (or female) who would not relate to at least some part of the book. It is, at bottom, a grimly uncomfortable yet humorous commentary about our inability to become completely comfortable with our own sexuality. This fact has long baffled me.
Why? Because single-celled organisms first engaged in honest-to-god sexual (not asexual, but sexual) reproduction just short of a billion years ago. (For you Young Earth Creationists out there, the conversion ratio is 1/160,000. Please modify your texts accordingly.)
Going even further, somewhere around 100,000 and 200,000 generations of our ancestors have been the product of reproduction and have reproduced since the time of Australopithecus anamensis, one of Homo sapiens' earliest ancestors. That's - a lot - of the ol’ in-out in-out.
(An interesting aside is that it took that many generations before it ever occurred to anyone to “Superman a ho,” an obvious product of the enlightenment.)
Prior to the end of the last Ice Age, despite the fact that nearly every organism born as a result of sexual reproduction had a mother, I doubt it ever occurred to anyone that what they were doing was anything at all to be ashamed of. They probably didn't even know precisely which holes went with what, and if someone felt like rubbing one out, it is unlikely that they felt guilty for doing so.
Indeed, modern scientific literature indicates that sex and the birth of offspring were not even causally (not casually; causally) associated by our earthly predecessors until relatively recently in human evolution. Hell, there are still “modern” humans alive today (the Trobriand Islanders) who have not yet grasped the connection between sex and childbirth, but somehow they manage to keep reproducing - which is not a mystery to anyone.
The point: you can thank our sexual proclivities for the fact that you are here today reading this blog. If our ancestors were not willing to indiscriminately mount anything with a nervous system, we would never have survived as a species.
Recall also that 40,000 years ago, the “Brazilian” and the electric toothbrush had not yet been invented, and women were basically indistinguishable from trees.
It's not like there were hot chicks walking around. Imagine Hillary Clinton without soap, dental hygiene, or nail clippers. Say it with me: Wookie.
Yet still our ancestors, early and recent, reproduced with such extraordinary ferocity and determination that billions of us happened to survive into the present day while millions of other species did not.
So don't be so damn hard on yourselves if you feel a twinge of shame when, like Onan, you throw a load into a Kleenex and wonder when polymer chemistry will catch up to the disposable-tissue industry so that the damn things can be made not to adhere to your dick like Elmer's wood glue when you try to dry off. Sex is a fundamental part of who we are as a species. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Don't puzzle your penis. Just make sure to clean up the mess.