Monday, February 4, 2008


Portnoy's Complaint, on what I guess is my 3rd reading, still holds up, still surprises. It's as outrageous, inventive and infuriating as ever, a comedy that crosses all the lines, the first appearance of the Dionysian Roth who will repeatedly rear his phallic head at intervals during the writer's subsequent career--most notably in My Life as a Man, The Professor of Desire, Sabbath's Theater and The Dying Animal. It's a cry of literary liberation that begins as a whine and ends with a scream, and it's all wonderfully (or morbidly, depending on your literary politics) self-conscious. The structure (a psychoanalytic monologue exaggerated into a stream of consciousness novel) is original and free while still following a generally chronological progression, a narrative that begins in the speaker's childhood and ends in his adult present as he begins analysis.

What 'saves' the character of Portnoy for us readers, finally--even after Roth alienates us from the character by showing us his attempted rape of the Israeli girl--is Portnoy's humor, his appreciation of the absurdity, the impossibility, of his situation and his ability to joke about it. Even when language fails and he screams out at the end, he's able to deflate the pathos with a punch line--which is more than that: a statement of beginning at the end, it forces a Joycean curcularity upon the text, a cycling back to the origin of neuroses in childhood, the movement that neatly defines Portnoy's prison. Serious stuff, for a farce.

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