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Portnoy's Complaint

Random House, $6.95

By Gregg J. Kilday

PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT should do for novelist Philip Roth what Levy's advertisements did for Jewish rye. Not that it has ever been necessary for one to be Jewish in order to like Roth. When compared to the brooding and melancholic that seems so irrepressible in much of Bellow and Malamud, Roth's treatment of the American Jew has always been relentlessly comic--even if sometimes bitterly so. Bellow's Jews--optimistic characters like Augie March included--seem to have been wandering ever since the Diaspora began. Meanwhile, Malamud has drifted back into Czarist Russia to find realities analogous to present predicaments. Nothing but consciousness, so much consciousness that the Jew has been through it all so many times before. Bellow and Malamud cultivate stoicism, where their readers--incensed by the darkness of their work--look for outrage. It is just that sense of outrage which seems to me the novelty of Portnoy's Complaint.

Roth's world is that of the nouveau riche and the pseudo-intellectual. His suburbanites struggle with the complexities of country clubs and housing developments; his professors, just out of Harvard or Columbia, are careful to pronounce Don Quixote with the hard X. None possess the depth or complexity of a Herzog. Roth sums it all up in my favorite image from his first novel, Letting Go (1962), when one sunny day the middle-aged Fay Silberman "goes outside their place in South Orange and her husband is being driven all over the lawn in their power mower. He's dead in his seat, . . . a horrible thing. He crashed into a tree with that damn machine." Yup, having swallowed the American dream whole, Roth's Jews--like so many minorities before them--cough themselves to death as the hidden bones lodge in their throats.

HAVING documented life in Newark and New York, in the process establishing himself as a superb social satirist (though, admittedly, the satire of late has been diluted by too much detail and conversation), Roth has now written his first exclusively introspective novel. Having reached the age of 25, he begins to muck about in the depths where he was once content to capture the ironies on the surface. To some extent, the process began in the character of Letting Go's Paul Herz, but where Roth's study of Herz was pedestrian, weighted with many of the conventions of novelistic realism, that of Alexander Portnoy is wonderfully off-center. Roth's humor--which pervaded his early short stories only to be swamped and reduced to little islands of comic vignettes in the two novels that followed--is back on center stage where it belongs. Roth uses it to light up his portrait of the archtypal American male Jew. It's as if Roth is sending up a nine-foot menorah in the middle of Fourth of July fireworks, a dazzling display of verbal pyrotechnics and ethnic humor.

Portnoy's Complaint is cast in the form of a series of psychoanalytic sessions between the 33-year-old Alexander Portnoy and his psychiatrist. It is more a series of comic monologues than anything else; I think the best analogy is that of a raucous cantata. The book opens with a parody of a psychiatric dictionary: Portnoy's Complaint--after its pronunciation and origin is established--is defined as "a disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistisc impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often a perverse nature." For further information, we are told to consult an article entitled "The Puzzled Penis" which Portnoy's psychiatrist Dr. Spielvogel has published in an international psychiatry journal. The monologues that follow--some narrative recitatives, some pained arias, a few even approaching sociological chorales -- are elaborations on the themes which Roth first states so bluntly.

PORTNOY himself calls it "The Alexander Portnoy Show!" He's the standup comedian out to tell the definitive Jewish joke. He is also the talented son, risen to the post of Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity. His parents--"the two outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time"--are the expected, overprotective Jewish mother and her long-suffering, constipated husband (whose constipation seems to rival Luther's in cosmic significance.) Togther they praise and badger Portnoy until he finds himself in a paradoxical position: his family considers him among "princes . . . and saviours and sheer perfection on the one hand, and such bumbling incompetent, thoughtless, helpless, selfish, evil little shits, little ingrates, on the other!" Having made a career out of adolescent masturbation (because it "was all I really had that I could call my own"), graduating to complicated sexual perversions in maturity, Portnoy himself can't reconcile the dichotomy between his public and private life. So--in helpless frustration--he turns to us, asking us to consider his role as "the smothered son in a Jewish joke," hoping that we'll recognize the inherent pain in the gag, "the part Sam Levenson leaves out!"

I'd like to think that Roth is also writing something like the Jewish parallel to Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He himself identifies Portnoy's older sister with a copy of Portrait. In his other work, Roth has introduced well-known book titles only for very specific reasons. Portnoy, like Stephen Daedalus, struggles to escape his family and his religion. And--as much as his country is Israel rather than America--he is forced to abandon that too when he finds himself inexplicably impotent during a visit there. But, unlike Stephen, he finds his solace in psychoanalysis rather than poetry.

PORTNOY'S priest, if not his god, is Dr. Spielvogel. Portnoy himself blunders about, half conscious of the Oedipal and castration complexes that rule his life. In fact, self-consciousness becomes his hang-up. At one point he pauses over a particular problem to ask, "now, why is that? is there an essay somewhere I can read on that? is it of import? or shall I go on?" Portnoy, with his daydreams and his failures, is actually much closer to that other Joycean hero, Leopold Bloom. The more Portnoy dredges up his past, the more it cripples him. He never achieves even Stephen's nominative freedom, for the mind is the one part of the man that can never expatriate.

Roth's use of the psychoanalytic confession makes for a most interesting form of characterization. Instead of delineating character, Portnoy recreates monsters. When Holden Caulfield told it all to a psychiatrist in Catcher in the Rye, it was really just a narrative device, just an excuse for the telling of a story. In the case of Portnoy, we never forget that he is lying on the couch. He is recreating the past from a specific, highly-emotional point in the present. Emotion recollected in tranquillity turns into hysteria. Each time Portnoy's mother Sophie reappears, another bit of horror is added. Portnoy justifies it all by saying she wears "the old self-conscious on her sleeve!" In any case, she soon seemed to me more like the witch out of Disney's Snow White than anyone else (which only serves to show where my first conscious remembrance of fear lies.) Along the way, there is lots of exaggeration, a veritable thesaurus of recrimination.

THE ONLY serious problem with the book is that much of the more controlled, more pointed social satire one associates with Roth has had to be forfeited. To be sure, there is still an overwhelming section on the WASP as seen by a young Jew. ("These are the children from the coloring books come to life, the children they mean on the signs we pass in Union, New Jersey, that say CHILDREN AT PLAY and DRIVE CAREFULLY, WE LOVE OUR CHILDREN.") It is more damning than anything in Roth's last novel, a story of an unwed mother in the great Midwest called When She Was Good (1967). And there are a few bits reminiscent of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), like an incident in which a Jewish businessman insists that the theme from Exodus be pumped into an operating room "so everyone should know what religion he is." Still, there are many spots where Roth omits scenes that beg to be told. We see Portnoy berate a girl called The Monkey when she dresses up like a whore for a party at Mayor Lindsay's, but, unfortunately, we don't get to see the party itself.

I'm sure many will object that of what is included too much is pornographic. Advance notice on the book made it sound like a singular piece of middlebrow porno that would bring about a best-selling marriage between the wandering tribe of former Salinger aficionadoes and Jacqueline Susann's camp followers. But Roth reads so quickly and so engagingly that much of what could pass for smut is more parody than prurience. The book lacks the turgid seriousness that marked Updike's Couples as a more perfect example of the genre. Portnoy--who admits to being "the Raskolnikov of jerking off"--refuses to be taken that seriously.

If it's any consolation, Roth doesn't ask the reader to identify with Portnoy (although, his experience isn't so ethnic that it lacks any larger application). Rather, Roth sets the reader beside Dr. Spielvogel. "Moral: nothing is never ironic," Portnoy tells us. We are then asked to put his joke into context. We must decide whether to laugh--the immediate response--or whether to be appalled by the self-deprecating clown who performs before us. Spielvogel solves the problem by answering with a single, ambiguous one-liner. Roth--after the 275 page monologue of Portnoy's Complaint-- calls it Spielvogel's "PUNCH LINE." It isn't funny, but it's a hard joke to top.

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