Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Promiscuous: "Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness

Bernard Avishai
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The publication ofPortnoy's Complaintin 1969 provoked instant, powerful reactions. It blasted Philip Roth into international fame, subjected him to unrelenting personal scrutiny and conjecture, and shocked legions of readers-some delighted, others appalled. Portnoy and other main characters became instant archetypes, and Roth himself became a touchstone for conflicting attitudes toward sexual liberation, Jewish power, political correctness, Freudian language, and bourgeois disgust. What about this book inspired Richard Lacayo ofTimeto describe it as "a literary instance of shock and awe," and the Modern Library to list it among the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century?

    Bernard Avishai offers a witty exploration of Roth's satiric masterpiece, based on the prolific novelist's own writings, teaching notes, and personal interviews. In addition to discussing the book's timing, rhetorical gambit, and sheer virtuousity, Avishai includes a chapter on the Jewish community's outrage over the book and how Roth survived it, and another on the author's scorching treatment of psychoanalysis. Avishai shows that Roth's irreverent novel left us questioning who, or what, was the object of the satire. Hilariously, it proved the serious ways we construct fictions about ourselves and others.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17811-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. PROLOGUE Teaching Notes
    (pp. 1-24)

    Most people I have asked remember where they were when they readPortnoy’s Complaint, something like when President Kennedy was shot—a more cheerful memory, needless to say, but one that sticks for much the same reason. Reading Philip Roth’s yellow-clad book felt like the end of innocence, which (for Boomers, curiously) had a way of ending again and again. Or was it that we felt unexpectedly discovered?

    Who in the history of the world has been least able to deal with a woman’s tears? My father. I am second. He says to me, “You heard your mother. Don’t eat...

  4. CHAPTER ONE A Novel in the Form of a Confession: The Enigma of Portnoy, Who Is Not Roth
    (pp. 25-58)

    By the beginning of 1969, much ofPortnoy’s Complainthad already appeared in print. Excerpts had been published inPartisan Review(whose 5,000 bookish copies were passed from hand to hand),Esquire, andNew American Review, the now defunct magazine edited by Roth’s friend and early promoter Ted Solotaroff. Rumors about publication rights began to circulate, creating the feeling of an impending literary squall. Random House, which paid Roth a $250,000 advance (about $2.5 million in today’s money), published the hardback in February; Bantam paid $350,000 for the paperback rights. (“I wondered,”Roth told a friend at the time, “what did...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Really Icky: Portnoy as Satirist
    (pp. 59-90)

    Alfred Kazin, remember, paid our hero an oblique tribute in his 1969 review, calling Portnoy a “masturbator at heart,” whom he rushed to dignify as a man in rebellion against “the undefeatable.”

    Portnoy in heat is particularly funny. Even when he graduates from the nearest receptacle to other bodies, sex remains his favorite form of protest. In the wildest throes, his bitterness is more in evidence than his passion, and his life remains, as always, furiously mental.… All this reaches its right voice and pitch and end (though there is no end) in the comic situation of Portnoy who at...

  6. CHAPTER THREE “The Best Kind” Portnoy as the Object of Satire
    (pp. 91-158)

    If Portnoy could be said to have had a first foil—one he could admit to, and we could never forget laughing about bashfully and in sympathy—it was the family rabbi, Rabbi Warshaw, “a fat, pompous, impatient fraud, with an absolutely grotesque superiority complex, a character out of Dickens is what he is …” Our fourteen-year-old hero is just finding his stride:

    This is a man who somewhere along the line got the idea that the basic unit of meaning in the English language is the syllable. So no word he pronounces has less than three of them, not...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Punch Line: Psychoanalysis as the Object of Satire
    (pp. 159-198)

    By the end of the novel, Portnoy is dissolved in spitefulness. Naomi rejects him—so he tells Spielvogel, finishing up the story of his stay in Israel—and Portnoy lunges at her. This occasions his turning on himself and ultimately on Spielvogel, too:

    But what a battle she gave me, this big farm cunt! This ex-G.I.! This mother-substitute! Look, can that be so? Oh, please, it can’t be as simplistic as that! Notme!Or with a case like mine, is it actually that you can’t be simplisticenough!Because she wore red hair and freckles, this makes her, according...

  8. Conclusion You Are Not True
    (pp. 199-212)

    Portnoy’s Complaintleft us laughing and queasy and talking. Can you really say this? Is this also me? Was the doctor really right? The joke was on everybody—parents, lovers, tribes, patients, psychoanalysts—which is another way of saying it was on the act of reading itself. The novel’s specific targets felt the impact most immediately:

    mothers flinched, Jews howled, psychiatrists sighed. The most subversive thing about the novel was the subtle way it stepped on its own punch line.

    Portnoy’s Complaint’senigmatic quality contributed to its success as “literature.” But future generations—I dare say, and will be mocked...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 213-216)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 217-220)
  11. Index
    (pp. 221-230)