Portnoy’s Complaint, included by both Time and Modern Library in their respective lists of ‘100 Best English-Language Novels of 20th Century’, immediately elevated its author Philip Roth to the pedestal of a literary showstopper, a counter-culture icon and the voice of a generation. Considered a seminal work in Jewish American literature and also a major controversy upon its publication as it broke a number of frontiers and conventions, the book was fascinating in its frank, ribald, satirical, hilarious, and at an overarching level, deeply perceptive and affecting portrayals of guilt, anxiety, insecurity, neuroses and angst that are quintessentially associated with the Jewish-American landscape, and thus formed a terrific companion piece to Bellow’s sad, funny and masterful Herzog, or for that matter, to the best of Woody Allen’s filmography. In an ingenious stylistic choice, Roth composed the book in the form of a long, continuous and rambling monologue, narrated, possibly over various sessions, by its protagonist Alexander Portnoy, a brilliant, intellectual and politically liberated but deeply neurotic, conflicted and guild-ridden Civil Servant, to his psychiatrist Dr. Spielvogel. It, consequently, comprised of a free-flowing narrative which seamlessly transitioned temporally from Portnoy’s childhood through his teenage years and adulthood, spatially from Newark and New York, where most of the tale is set, to various American towns and even Israel, and most vitally, between dreams, fantasies and reality. The formal audacity was however exquisitely juxtaposed by its self-deprecatory, subversive and splitting humour, contributed in large parts by the protagonist’s deliberately exaggerated depictions of the key characters in his life – his control-freak mother, his constipated father, and his relationships ranging from a libido-fueled but unstable girl-woman to a sensible and rule-breaking lady and a highly conservative girl. Apart from its vibrant tapestry on Jewish-American diaspora, it also covered such themes as mother-son relationship bordering on Oedipal Complex, the tussle between respectability, morality and impulses, the brewing Sexual Revolution, complexity of historical baggage, existential and identity crises, religious dogmas, social hypocrisy and so forth.
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Stream of Consciousness/Existentialist Drama