- How Many Feminists Does It Take to Screw in a Light Bulb?
You may not believe this, but Portnoy's Complaint is my favorite Roth novel (followed closely by Sabbath's Theater, Operation Shylock, Plot Against America, and The Human Stain). As a feminist, it's quite a confession to avow that three of my favorites contain some of the most problematic women characters and most excessive and zany sexual content of any in contemporary Jewish American literature. But the truth is that some of Roth's women characters embody what would be called much later "consent culture"; they actively express unbounded desires in ways that crack open certain expectations that, some recent commentators like Kitty Stryker and Laurie Penny argue, paradoxically can fuel rape culture.1 While The Monkey unfortunately still embodies the virgin/whore dichotomy and still maintains the stark divide in Roth and other writers' work wherein smart women are hardly ever sexy and sexy women are hardly ever smart, her character is to be credited with offering ample consent. It is definitely frustrating to be a feminist reader of Roth, and it is difficult to enjoy the jouissance of his writing and simultaneously be so distraught by the representations of women. Many of the major female characters (most of them not Jewish) are flattened, nicknamed, and objectified—it can be hard to celebrate the gems. I feel tossed between the utter joy of the prose (whatever else you might want to say about Roth, you have to hand it to him: he could write!) and the melancholia of seeing women debased. Only a smattering of women, including Steena from The Human Stain, are smart and voluptuous and pretty, so there remains a fairly unbreachable divide in Roth's novels between the smart and the sexy women. The Monkey is definitely sexy, not smart. Or rather, her intelligence is entirely embodied.
As we try to sift through Roth's legacy now that, sadly, there won't be any more novels, Roth's readers can square the enjoyment of his stunning prose with the problematics of the representation of women and thus find a space [End Page 68] between the rock of appearing like a self-hating Jewish woman and the hard place of seeming like a joyless prude through close reading. Once you dig up the granular nuances of the text you'll see that, yes, there's a lot to object to, but there is also a complex critique of the troubling depictions embedded in the novels—their latent content might surprise you. Looking closely, there are through-the-looking-glass moments that counter the quick dismissal of Roth as "misogynist."
By focusing on The Monkey, I demonstrate how Roth's return to William Butler Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" at the end of Portnoy's Complaint (1969), where Portnoy takes the structural position of Leda, uncovers the anxieties of Jewish masculinity. By revisiting The Monkey, I argue that through Roth's contrasting representations of women, and through their broadcasting of Portnoy and his problems, Roth exposes the trouble with Jewish masculinity as much as he denigrates Portnoy's various consorts. Roth satirizes Portnoy to the same degree as he does The Monkey, or The Pumpkin, or The Jewish Pumpkin. But I would like to have my cake and eat it, too: just because the Jewish joke extends to the main male character, that does not mean that the representations of women are without major pitfalls. By unveiling the highly gendered problematics of the interactions between the men and women in this text (there are some queer moments but the overall arc is very heterosexual) Roth offers a nuanced reading of power dynamics that comes to a head during the reversed "Leda and the Swan" closing, where Portnoy becomes the victim and Naomi, the Israeli soldier, The Jewish Pumpkin, becomes Zeus.
The fifty-year-old novel that launched Roth into fame and infamy, Portnoy's Complaint, boasts an inventive structure and will make you laugh out loud. The entire text is composed of the main character, Alexander Portnoy, ranting, declaiming, whining, describing, kvetching, and indeed complaining to his analyst...