Well, I honestly don’t know what to tell you: I’m not sure I ever quite got on board with this book.
Of course, it was just two-fifty, after subtracting the trade-in credits I have at the used bookstore up in Arlington. And of course, Mr. Roth is a very well-known, and still widely-read (as I understand it), Jewish author, and so it fit well into my project. But ne’er the less: what the fuck?
On the back cover copy, it reads, “No one has written so amusingly and yet so crassly about sex since Henry Miller” (quoting Time). Perhaps this is true. But I greatly preferred The Tropic of Cancer.
A charitable reading (ha!) of this distaste would be that I read the book over perhaps too long a period (say, three-to-four weeks), with at least a book or two and lots of other reading in between (not to mention a hellish week in which I had to write and turn in thirty brand-spanking new pages of prose to workshop, which I didn’t prepare for but couldn’t have due to my work schedule in October — so sue me). But the problem is probably deeper than that:
I didn’t find it all that funny, or true.
In fact, I found it somewhat stereotypical.
(Charitably, perhaps that might be the point.)
You see, at least growing up Jewish, I’m very familiar with the Jewish guilt thing: born and bred and raised to it. And so reading the first 100-150 page screed on the guilt and frustration with the parents felt… well, dull. And though the masturbatory content (pun intended) was at times amusing — I’ll give him that: Mr. Roth writes brilliantly about wanking off — it too readily fell into a certain kind of super-Freudian response that felt both artificial and comical. Again, charitably that might have been the point: the book is addressed to ‘Herr Doctor,’ after all.
(I’m realizing I never summarized the book, although this is not meant, strictly, to be a review:
Alexander Portnoy is a 33-year-old Jewish guy from Jersey who is obsessed with sex and pussy and all of that and suffers terrible guilt with lots of obvious oedipal overtones from his parents, and in response to that chases shiksas for most of his life, which spurs on a number of sexual and interpersonal misadventures (which are herein catalogued), culminating ultimately in a retributive (as he sees it) impotence and flaccidity in the Land of Israel.
The book is a meandering, non-linear monologue which, as it is in the voice of a very intelligent narrator (“an I.Q. of one hundred fifty-eight!”), winks and plays and does all sorts of silly and somewhat (self-?)satisfying things with language and narrative play.)
All of this is to say it’s a very well-written and well-put-together book. Like, the dude can write.
But I suppose the moral thrust (puns, ha) of the book I suppose feels too easy: as I understand it (having just finished it on the terrifically long flight from SF to Boston, writing this now without consulting sources or any of it), the book is about self-abnegation (what a five dollar word! Here my prose is infected!) brought on by being in exile and living in a primarily goyish world. Or at least that’s one cut at it: it’s also a character study of a sex-crazed neurotic. But to view the narrator as a type, to view the study as representative (at least) of a certain (familiar) kind of Jewish self-loathing and denial of heritage and culture, well, then it becomes somewhat… uninspiring? Uninteresting? Too-familiar?
Or perhaps it’s just one of those books — meant to explain, to some extent, a current cultural neurosis — that doesn’t age well. It was published in the late-60’s, set in the mid-60s, and very much, I think, trying to deal with American Jewry in light of this new state, this “New Jew” promised by Israel.
But what’s crazy is that all only happens later on in the book!
This, of course, makes me think either:
A) It wasn’t that important, the Israel stuff, so far as the intent and scope of the novel and I’m reading too much into it
B) There were perhaps too-few breadcrumbs. Or too-few to really “Get it” on a first reading.
But now I’m talking myself in circles (like I said, my prose has been infected): there are innumerable allusions to Alexander (the narrator) wanting specific “American” types. There are many allusions to the inexplicit ghettoized nature of 30s and 40s Jewry in the American Northeast. And so I do think that’s the point. But, since we spend so little time in the supposedly “non-exiling land,” and because the characters of Israeli women are either a type (‘beautiful, green-eyed’) or a mouth-piece (the kibbutznik, who reminds Alexander of his mother and similarly routes him, although along anti-capitalist, pro-zionist lines), well, we’re not 100% sure how to read it.
And also I found the ending unsatisfying, anyway.
When I finally get out of this infernal tube of high-grade aluminum and read a little more about the book, I may change my mind. But I have also been railing against all sorts of books lately, even when they’re technically fine, so maybe this is just another part of that pattern.
Who knows anything, anyway? Certainly not I.