Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My Complaint about Portnoy

I've been reading an anthology of American Catholic stories, and I'm just getting to the modern section in which the living authors reside. Some of these are writers I've heard of, but never read: Richard Russo, Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus. This is a chance to expand my literary horizons, and I look forward to plunging in.

However, there are modern American authors who do not turn me on, and chief among these is Philip Roth. Steven Riddle has been wading through Roth lately, and concludes that though he is capable of crafting some excellent prose, he has a rather juvenile fetish:
his insistence that the worth of a man is judged primarily, if not solely, by the correct and frequent functioning of those anatomical parts that define his maleness.
This about sums up my one reading of Roth, which I described in Steven's combox.
Several years ago, a co-worker who knew I was unacquainted with Roth's oeuvre insisted that I read the first few pages of Portnoy's Complaint. What a masterpiece of hilarity! he insisted. So funny!

So I did. And the first few pages left me absolutely cold on an intellectual level, as well as exacerbating my morning sickness on a physical level. I don't really find masturbation as fascinating as Roth, and so I've avoided his company ever since. Perhaps this is a mistake, but I do hate digging through pages of penis-worship to mine the occasional literary gem.


John Farrell said...

I agree. Though there were some nice stories in Roth's first collection, including 'The Conversion of the Jews' which is a funny one about a kid in religion class who angers his rabbi by insisting, well, sure why couldn't God cause an immaculate conception if He wanted to?

Donald R. McClarey said...

Being decadent is bad. Being boringly decadent is much worse. That sums up Philip Roth for me.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Did you read Hitchens' blistering review of Roth's latest in this month's Atlantic Monthly? I think he shares your feelings.

CMinor said...

Thanks for the heads-up. I gravitate towards lit with a good thick layer of dust on it anyway, and it's nice to know I'm not missing much by never getting around to the contemporaries.

Mental note: No Philip Roth, ever.

Matthew Lickona said...

Gosh, but I love Portnoy's Complaint. Masturbation doesn't show up until page 17, and by then, the real point of the book has been established - Portnoy's furious but ultimately doomed rebellion against his identity as a Jew - religiously and culturally. Sex and shame (combined so powerfully in masturbation) are a big part of that rebellion, granted. But Portnoy doesn't worship his penis - he worships what it can do for him. Namely, it can connect him, in a powerful and immediate fashion, to the forbidden - girls who aren't Jewish. His masturbatory fantasy girl is Thereal McCoy, a cutely play on words, but a goyim, all the same. The gal he seduces in college is a fine example. He's so pleased to be with this girl, but when it comes time to talk about the future, he can't believe she won't convert to Judaism. "Just when I thought I was out - they pull me back in" - in grand fashion. So yes, the novel is drenched in graphic sex, and will be far, far, far from everybody's tastes. But he's not measuring men by their ability to perform, not simply. The last scene there, where he tries to force himself on the Israeli woman? He can't perform. But what does that signify? Not that he's not a real man, but that he's not a real Jew. He's rejected his heritage - and now, he can't connect with it on a fundamental level. The horror for Portnoy is that, however much he rejected it, it's still with him always. I would argue that the sex in Portnoy is not there for its own sake, but rather for what it signifies. I also find a lot of it funny, but I suppose that's a matter of taste. (The Human Stain ought to make Roth's interests clear - a really fine novel, again about identity.)