Bravery and Banishment: Portnoy's Complaint

Bravery and Banishment: Portnoy's Complaint

So, there are a few things that I love. Well, more than a few (I have a lot of feelings/love to give). But let’s talk specifically about two of the things I love the most: free speech and pissing people off. So banned books week is a great time for me to pick up some books that stupid people thought were bad for society and said “NAY!” to.

And with my love for people who have been labeled assholes at one point or another (ok, ok, ok. the three things I love the most), I picked up a book that rocked the world for its blatant displays of perverse sexuality back in the day, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. I told my dad that I was about to read it and he responded “Oh yeah! The book where the guy masturbates with a piece of liver.” Yeah, Dad. That one.

But before we get to the point(s), I want to make a confession. I have not finished the book. Straight up. No lies. I might, one day. But at page 169—EH? EH?!?!—I needed to take a breather. Because, while I thought it was weird that my dad remembered the book simply as “the book where the guy masturbates with a piece of liver,” that’s exactly what it is, with a few jabs at Jewish sexuality. I loved Goodbye, Columbus and The Plot Against America so I know Roth’s other writing, what he’s capable of and what he does, and Portnoy’s Complaint is, well, different.

So, here’s the thing: On the cover (the one designed by gray318 [if you don’t know what that means, it’s ok. You probably have a social life]), a quote from Newsweek praises Roth and the book as being “brave.” This is because the book, in dealing with the aforementioned sexuality and Newark area Jewish community, was bound to piss off everyone when it was written. And piss off it did. Australia banned the import of it in 1969 (EH?!) and libraries around the States banned it outright. Somewhere in there my dad read it and found it so grossly amusing that he remembers it to this day, and Irving Howe threw an Irving Howe-esque shit fit. The book was called revolutionary and grotesque by supporters and detractors, respectively.

However, whether or not the ramifications of writing such a book were revolutionary or not, I am not sure about the bravery. The book started as a comedy routine that Roth would perform. And if there’s anything that’s always comedic gold, it’s jerking off. And the whole thing is told as a monologue from the main character to the Doctor, structured very loosely and bouncing around through time and through points. Finally, the last line of the book is its own section, with the section heading “Punch Line.” With all of this in mind, it looks more and more like Philip Roth thought “I wonder if I could write an entire book about a kid jerking off too much?” and then proceeded to write it.

BUT! And, as you will notice from the caps, this is important, I’m not sure the intention here is the important thing. The reaction from the media and the public is always going to be hyperbolic—how else would we sell newspapers or make our way into the newspaper without some sort of controversy?—and writers should spend more time thinking about writing the best words they can than worrying about people getting mad at them (side note: “writing the best words they can…” etc. is the best I could do).

So the point is that sometimes writing for cheap laughs and shock value end up with a book that forces a country, or parts of the country, or both to look inside and think about how they deal with certain things, like their sexuality or religion. And the idea that banning a book based on its potty humor or its forcing of a country, or parts of a country, or both to look inside is fucking stupid and only proves all the more why we need these sorts of books.

Which is another important thing to keep in mind as we exit Banned Books Week—while Portnoy was banned for its gratuitous sexuality (which would prove to be important) and description of the Jewish community, other books are banned for no good reason at all. Because of perceived issues with content or language. And when you put those books into a bigger context of language and culture, maybe their “questionable” parts don’t seem so questionable and their messages show more clearly. Or, really, everyone could just pull the sticks from their asses and stop bitching about art. But, you know… America.

Filed under: Opinion

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