June 2012

Josh Zajdman


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

Promiscuous: "Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness is the worst kind of literary criticism. Hagiographic, tangential, heavy on personal anecdote, short on supported thought. Bernard Avishai, from virtually page one, seems absolutely delighted with himself, his friendship with Philip Roth (which he never tires of writing about, or reminding you of), and, most painfully for the reader, this book. And several other books too. The issue doesn't lie with Portnoy's Complaint -- it is a terrifically funny, angry novel, which loudly trumpeted the arrival of a literary talent. Agreed. But it is not on par with Ulysses, and only suffers from the comparison.

Nor is it beneficial to compare Roth to Sherwood Anderson, J.D. Salinger, or any of the other members of the literary army Avishai keeps employing to lend credence to his claims. Portnoy's Complaint is not Roth's greatest, deepest, most complex, most significant, or even funniest work. Avishai's two-hundred-plus page attempt to position it as such only strikes the reader as frenzied, forced, and frankly, painful to read. Case in point: "Most people I have asked remember where they were when they read Portnoy'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." He's writing about a book where a boy uses liver to masturbate with and, somehow, still manages to come out with having displayed worse taste. Now, this is egregious, facile reasoning, and the same type can be found wherever you may open the book. Yet Avishai outdoes himself with the way he closes the first paragraph, a mere suggestion that both events "felt like the end of innocence." Assassination and masturbation? Never the twain shall meet. Proceed with deep breaths.

As the noxious prologue winds and weaves to a cluttered end, Avishai offers a confession. "I confess, as if we need more confessions, that I undertake this writing feeling a bit of a fool myself. You have to be as fresh, or vain, as Portnoy to think you could write about Portnoy's Complaint." It was with great sadness and frustration, as reader and critic, that I discovered Avishai fit squarely in the latter category. The book begins with Avishai's consideration of the novel's confessional nature. There is more facile reasoning -- "You have to wonder, as I have reason to suspect its author does, if Portnoy's Complaint didn't endure all these years simply for salacious reasons..." With the frequent references to the relationship between Roth and Avishai, why rely on wondering and suspicion at all? Why can't this be answered definitively? Speaking of friends, prepare for a battery of "he said, she said" from Avishai's seemingly endless collection of literary friends -- the Gopniks, Remnicks, and other hallowed members of the New Yorker editorial staff. It all comes to a hilt with Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. Avishai puts on his psychoanalytic cap and draws a shaky, fractured line between the two works. "Voices clashing with one another, characters getting in and out of fixes or dying in the attempt; characters left with nothing but the comforts of the affection they give one another. Something like that feeling accompanies you almost from the first page of Portnoy's Complaint and stays with you until the very last line." That's quite different from the sinking feeling I had upon reading of Kennedy's assassination, but the longevity is similar, at least. Mine didn't abate until the last line, either.

Chapter two is called "Really Icky." Finally, something I can agree with. Avishai continues his game of naming as many cultural referents and expounding on them while occasionally relating them to Philip Roth and the novel. These include Benjamin Franklin, D.H. Lawrence, Grace Paley, Harold Bloom (again), This American Life, and a sackful of others. Avishai seems to have almost taken Timothy Leary to heart. He's turned himself on with his unrelenting self-aggrandizement, displayed his cultural savvy by listing virtually everything he's tuned in to, but simply refuses to drop out. The next chapter, "The Best Kind," is rooted firmly in the Jewish response to the novel (both in terms of literary and religious communities.) Avishai refers to this as "the brawl [Roth] provoked." It's the longest and most uninspired chapter, which really is a feat. It's a rehashing of the same story recounted in any consideration of Portnoy's Complaint. This time it just feels exhausting. For this go-around, names like Podhoretz, Howe, Trilling, and others get bandied about. While certainly more interesting than Lawrence, it's all in service to "Portnoy as the object of satire" and the traumas visited upon Roth by fame. Of course, Avishai doesn't hesitate to remind us of his front row seat. "Roth once told me," he begins another anecdote. But, lest you get too comfortable, he's off tackling Christopher Hitchens on god (oh, to witness a debate between Avishai's specious reasoning and Hitchens's surefooted intellectual fury), Amy Tan on minorities and the bildungsroman, and Thomas Hobbes, too.

In the cloyingly clever nod to the novel that is chapter four, entitled "Punch Line: Psychoanalysis as the Object of Satire," it's clear where Avishai is writing from at this point. It's truly astounding that the book doesn't have a heavier binding as Avishai places so much emphasis on the function of psychoanalysis in the book and in Roth's life. One would expect the spine to suffer accordingly. This chapter is replete with Gopnik quotes, mention of Freud, Leonard Bernstein, and several other cultural luminaries. It ends with Avishai recounting the publishing of his first book. Guess who he called to share the news with?

What disappointment to discover that there is a conclusion to the four leaden chapters. Avishai writes that he "shall be pitied for saying this -- Portnoy's Complaint might well have been the real culmination of the civil rights struggle of the sixties, our awakening to liberalism's full implications." What's tougher to swallow after reading these two books? That type of sentiment or a liver that's been around the block? I'll take the liver.           

Promiscuous: "Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness by Bernard Avishai
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-0300151909
240 pages