Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Mike’s review of Portnoy’s Complaint

I was never one to beat off into my socks (couldn’t bring myself to soil a perfectly good, clean sock and dirty ones are so crusty) but this is genius and I bet I could’ve convinced myself dirty socks felt great had I thought of it. (sorry about the underside of the mattress if you’re reading this mom) (don’t worry, she’s not) [I must have really gotten into the spirit of the book if I was willing to write that down. A smart person would edit that before it goes up, but I’m too true to words to delete it].

“I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off.” Good rap line.

Losing a testicle in your body somewhere would mean a little more of a freak-out, right? I’d be at the doctor instantly for that one. (and, in fact, I just checked to make sure they’re still there)

“shades of Gregor Samsa!” Why do I know this reference? I’m not even sure I’ve read all of The Metamorphosis. Why does this part of my brain (the trivial part) work so well? (of course there are those of you who think it ludicrous one would not know this reference. You’re nerds though.)

Valerie’s review of Portnoy’s Complaint

At first I found this book highly amusing. The candor with which he regales his flesh lusts and self abuse during adolescence is so refreshingly honest. Yet the parents are over the top. The book is literally one long rant (thus the title). So I got pretty bored with it. Though Yiddish fascinates me. I can never find a dictionary with Yiddish definitions. I quit reading after about 100 pages. I may go back to it. I respect and adore a good humorous essay, so why did Portnoy bug me so? It was funny.

Mike’s response to Valerie’s review of Portnoy’s Complaint

I made it all the way through, but (as you can see, since my last note was taken no more than halfway through) I lost interest too. Actually I don’t know that I’d say I was ever interested. There were small pieces that were great, but it’s not really a book, exactly. I don’t really need a straight narrative arc, but nothing happens. There’s no change in action, no change in character. Literally, he is still the same boy he was (“stuck in arrested development” “Hey, that’s the name of the show!”) I’ve been listening to WTF with Marc Maron and he says he used to do this thing where he’d get on stage and defy an audience to like him. See how far he could push the audience, how big of a dick he could be before they turned on him. (Rest assured, I relate to this in my personal life.) That’s kinda what I picture Roth like here. All fucking coked out (because dicks do coke and because Maron was probably coked out at the time too. [Spellcheck recognizes coke as a verb. Interesting. Wonder what kind of crazy coke/dictionary parties are going on]) and just trying to bring on the hate. Clearly, he wants his parents to hate him, else the parents here would be slightly less ridiculous, and he wouldn’t be quite so filthy. I mean, (spoiler? Since you didn’t finish, but I wouldn’t hesitate to read on here) he tries to rape someone. Roth isn’t exactly going for sympathy here. And I’m not super-versed in Roth, but he seems to be pretty clear about his protagonists being surrogate selves.

I hated the Yiddish. I found somewhere online that was a decent resource as a dictionary, but I can’t bring myself to use a dictionary every line. So I just deal with not knowing. No matter the language. I understand the draw as a write (as I’ve been doing this a lot in what I’m working on now), but as a reader, I fucking hate it.

I don’t remember being this upset with the book while I was reading it. I certainly wasn’t happy with it, but now I feel anger towards it. Fun side note: I always tried really hard to hide the title while reading on the train (no easy task as the front and back cover of my version were the same), lest someone figure out what I was reading and think me to be a pervert.

Valerie’s response to Mike’s response

The receptacles for spunk: always a topic of fascination for me as this is an unknown problem for women. I used to find wads of tissues by a boyfriend’s bed all the time, I thought, ‘for goodness sake he knew I was sleeping over, why didn’t he clean that up?’ But then I realized it was just a lifetime habit that he probably didn’t even think about after cumming. My mom once found a collection of semen in a band-aid canister in our bathroom, god knows which of my brothers was saving it and why. And then there’s the urban legend of the boy who gave his crush a jar of his jizz as a token of his love. Bedsheets or underwear seem like the obvious sex wipes, but maybe too obvious?

I appreciate the spoiler about the attempted rape because now I know I probably won’t go back to this book. I will however try to read more of Roth at some point. I’ve often walked out of books or films with unsympathetic characters but also been drawn to them as well. Mood depending. The attraction is one of curiosity, as in, how far can someone go? I am thinking about the Native American sacred clown, who does exactly the opposite of what is expected and desired by society. How much can they get away with? American Psycho by BE Ellis is a masterpiece even though the main character was robotlike and terrifying. And you mentioned Crime and Punishment – Raskolnikov had some redeeming characteristics, if I remember right. Or maybe it was just his crushing guilt that I found easy to relate to…. my Catholic complex coming out again, haha

Your mention of writing on coke makes me think of another book I read that I’m pretty sure was created from the drug… need to find my notes on it… German author, uhh I will get back to you on that.

You might also enjoy Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne, this is a funnier and more plot-driven modern version of Portnoy’s Complaint, with a great vocabulary to boot, which is part of the humor, as it is supposed to be written by an adolescent. I read it a few times in high school. When I gave it to my little brother, my mother took it away from him – if book banning means anything to you, that might give you an idea of its contents. Wow I just googled YIR and realized there are 6 other books with the same character as well as a movie. Who knew?

Mike’s response to Valerie’s response

Tissues aren’t a good choice. They’re expensive and there’s no other reason to use them (as I’ve taken to blowing my nose with toilet paper long ago [or picking it]). Toilet paper is too thin and is rather unfortunate to unroll when you need it. I have a towel in a little nook next to the bed that you can’t really see into. It’s just me, so whatever. Things aren’t the same once they’ve been covered in ejaculate. My towels are just for the purpose and will never touch my body. Which is why sheets and underwear don’t exactly work.

Is the jar of semen seriously an urban legend? I hella thought that shit was true. I can’t believe I just Googled “jar semen urban legend,” but I did. That search was inconclusive. This might put our people back years, but is it only a Wisconsin urban legend? Because I’ve mentioned it here in California and have never been called out for it. Though my particular story has some fairly exact details, like I knew the people involved and she wanted to grow up to inseminate cows, though I didn’t know the jar itself.

I have American Pastoral on my shelf which is supposed to be recognized as good even by Roth detractors. He’s certainly not a female-friendly writer. I suppose most writers aren’t though. What I really mean is Roth can be outright hostile to women. You’d think with all the men in the world making art about what it means to be a man, I’d have some sort of clue as to what that means. (A friend’s father recently said that real men like sports and outdoor things. Eventually he went on to imply that men need to smack women around too [which he does not do I want to be implicitly clear here], so I don’t think I can exactly believe him.) I bought Portnoy’s Complaint specifically because I figured I should read some Roth. I did enjoy Everyman, but this was more of an obligation than a desire.

There’s a difference (this sentence started out with the word big in it, but has been retracted) between Patrick Bateman and Portnoy. Bear with me because it’s been years and years since I read American Psycho (which I did while in Australia and New Zealand on something like a school trip except it wasn’t with people from my school. No wonder I didn’t make any friends when I explained “what are you reading?”) and I may not have a full understanding of it. In part, I’m basing this on Ellis that I’ve since read. There’s an undercurrent of remorse or discontent in Ellis that is not here in Portnoy. Portnoy is unrepentant and revels in his own bullshit. Bateman does evil, but it’s only out of habit. I wanted to avoid the addict analogy, but I can’t. Portnoy is early in the addict’s addiction, still, “Oh I got so wasted last night! What? I did what? That’s crazy. Sorry dude, I was so drunk I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m sure you can work it out with your girlfriend.” Bateman has realized what his addiction (which is supposed to be metaphoric here, though the point could be made Bateman had a real addiction) does to him, but can’t control it and just kinda keeps going along with it. Bateman wakes up crying because he knows any minute he’s about to take the first swig. Which makes him sympathetic on some level. And Psycho satirizes a lot of American excess and appearance obsession wisely and with humor. Portnoy’s satire is something like, “Oh, you feel a little uncomfortable talking about sex, well then I think I will rape you violently.” Raskolnikov gets caught, doesn’t he? Which also shifts the dynamic. And he feels guilty. Portnoy just straight fucking sucks.

I read Youth in Revolt (which I had problems with, mostly stemming from Payne’s age) after seeing the movie (which I had problems with because it was very clearly not shot in anything that looked remotely like Oakland/Berkeley but it did do a good job of opening up to the book, which is hard for a movie to do. By which I mean I wanted to read the book after watching the movie. I didn’t think I’d absorbed all I could already). I think there was a time in my life where I would have enjoyed it more, probably when I was about Nick’s age, but it kind creeped me out. Here’s my review of YIR, which I’ll also put up for real.

Youth In Revolt

by C.D. Payne


If Payne graduated from Harvard in ’71, then he was more than likely over 50 years old when he wrote this and there’s definitely something weird about a 50 year old man writing a teenage sex romp.

Also, “what was it about that weird decade?” in reference to the ’60s (which demonstrates a complete naivety), followed by, “but hell, the strategy worked for Nixon in ’68.”

I totally geek out when something geographically-Oakland-specific happens, e.g. “we got on our bikes and rode down to the bus station in Oakland’s skid row.” Greyhound at 20th and San Pablo. Really pissed me off that the movie was clearly not shot in Oakland; looked more like the midwest.

OK. What’s weird about Payne’s age is that the lust feels so real but the angst doesn’t. “I have nothing to say to that man.” (about his dad) When I was 14 I fucking hated my mother, but I wouldn’t have said that.

“malignant cancer tumors”

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