Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint was a prodigy's most sensational fiction, not coincidentally about a prodigiously articulate hero. We remember Alex Portnoy impaling with pitiless thrusts invasive mothers, plugged-up fathers, dizzying women in heat. We remember him giving the English language perhaps its most perfect alliteration: "publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz." The book taught us to acknowledge how erotic fuel can blow up ambitions, how Jews can choke on pathos, and psychoanalytic theories can expose the hidden and oversimplify the obvious. Let's get this out of the way: you still can get intelligent, graying people to laugh out loud simply by coupling "Alex" with "liver":
So galvanic [explains Portnoy] 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... I begin a scrupulous search of the shower curtain, the tub, the tile floor, the four toothbrushes--God forbid!--and just as I am about to unlock the door, imagining I have covered my tracks, my heart lurches at the sight of what is hanging like snot to the toe of my shoe. I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off . . .
Portnoys' Complaint, in short, gave us boomers, and not just Jews, an experience quite like what I imagine gay people now feel when they come out of the closet. Here, now, is the rest of me. By 1975, six years after the book's publication, Portnoy's Complaint had sold nearly half a million copies in hardback in the United States, three and a half million in paperback. The book brought what was in the back of our minds to the tips of tongues. Or as President Obama asked, greeting the winners of the National Humanities Medal in 2010 (Roth among them), "How many young people have learned to think by reading the exploits of Portnoy and his complaints?"
The question is, why has Portnoy's Complaint survived to engage new generations, getting as many hits on Google today as, say, Zadie Smith's break-out novel, White Teeth? Shouldn't the novel seem dated by now--afflicted with an "oddly period feel," as Michael Chabon put it--pushing an envelope whose sides, thanks inter alia to the novel itself, we no longer feel pressing in on us very much? Iconic works often have a way of captivating future generations, but also of making themselves seem deceptively tame to future generations. Why the continuing punch?
The answer, I think, is that the book was always wonderfully enigmatic, giving us a voice that cannot mock others without first mocking itself, the sound of a psychoanalytic room yet no way to judge or sympathize with what we were hearing--no vantage point, no moral pivot, nothing but an eavesdropping on analysand and analyst, both of whom seemed verging on parody. Who, after all, is the object of the satire? Sophie, the Jewish mother? The hysterical shikse beauty Alex calls "The Monkey"? Le bourgeoisie and its self-possession? Or, is it Alex himself, whose extreme versions of all of the above, and even more extreme dissatisfaction with himself, leaves Spielvogel speechless?
Well, almost speechless. Indeed, the analyst's punch-line at the end of Alex's eloquent kvetch--"Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?"--left some readers certain that Spielvogel must be the intended hero of the piece; that freedom is not (or not only) complaint, that narcissism could become what Christopher Lasch called "a culture." Alas, the enigma of Portnoy's Complaint is bigger still. For the novel leaves us with the lingering suspicion that the analyst was also a little too prone to extreme inventions, a totemic mother and a father short on taboo; that Herr Doctor represented an orthodoxy that thought it had an explanation for everything, from pleasure to process--that psychoanalysis took liberties for Spielvogel, too.
What is to be made, then, of a satire whose target slides under our hands--from parents to lovers to tribes, from analysand to analyst--and seems to keep us sliding on? The joke was on everybody, you see, which is another way of saying it was on readers and the act of reading itself. Roth didn't just make us laugh out loud. He left us laughing, nervously, at all forms of orthodoxy. Portnoy's Complaint did not simply undermine our sense of what happiness is or might be--by transgressing bourgeois norms, underlining ambivalent notions of sexual respectability, and so forth. It undermined the hope of pursuing it with confidence in our language, sense of ethics, and perceptions.
I know I shall be pitied for saying this, but Portnoy's Complaint was the closest thing we had, back in 1969, to the culmination of forces unleashed by a decade of civil rights, a kind of awakening to liberalism's full and tragic implications. We were supposed to be judged by "the content of our characters." The trailing insight of the book: good luck. The novel's readers learned to think alright, but our conclusion, though we only dimly perceived it, was that we were inevitably enmeshed in heartbreaking relations and (if we are decent) self-criticism. Precisely because perceptions are idiosyncratic, the principle of tolerance must be absolute.
And that's the power of the novel today, too. Dickens lives on because he speaks to the bullied, ambitious child in us. Salinger speaks to a teenager's rejection of phonies. Roth, by giving us Alex, speaks to and through the nervous young person who lives on in us more resiliently; speaks to that hyper-precious moment when the child goes into eclipse, the teen having long before been launched, and adult pleasures (bodies, risk, power) and their surprising allies (dissembling, aggression, moral equivocation) present themselves.
"A wonderful fact to reflect upon," Dickens writes, famously, in A Tale of Two Cities, "that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other." Portnoy's Complaint shows us as few books have how we rely on our capacity to invent fictions about one another to establish our singularity and strive against its loneliness. We want, and want! and WANT, things to be different for us.