Portnoy's Complaint  

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"Its success turned Roth into a major celebrity, sparking a storm of controversy over its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver."

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Portnoy's Complaint (1969) is American writer Philip Roth's most popular novel, with many of its characteristics (comedic prose; themes of sexual desire and sexual frustration; a self-conscious literariness) having gone on to become Roth trademarks.

Structurally, Portnoy's Complaint is a continuous monologue as narrated by its eponymous speaker, Alexander Portnoy, to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. This narration weaves through time and describes scenes from each stage in Portnoy's life, with every recollection in some way touching upon Portnoy's central dilemma: his inability to enjoy the fruits of his sexual adventures even as his extreme libidinal urges force him to seek release in ever more creative (and, in his mind, degrading and shameful) acts of eroticism. Roth is not subtle about defining this as the main theme of his book. On the first page of the novel one finds this clinical definition of "Portnoy's Complaint", as if ripped from the pages of a manual on sexual dysfunction:

Portnoy's Complaint: A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature...

Other topics touched on in the book include the assimilation experiences of American Jews, their relationship to the Jews of Israel, and the pleasures and perils the narrator sees as inherent in being the son of a Jewish family.

Portnoy's Complaint is also emblematic of the times during which it was published. Most obviously, the book's sexual frankness was both a product of and an inspiration for the sexual revolution that was in full swing during the late 1960s. And the book's narrative style, a huge departure from the stately, semi-Jamesian prose of Roth's earlier novels, has often been likened to the stand-up performances of 1960s comedian Lenny Bruce.

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