When she first encountered Portnoy’s Complaint being read aloud by a friend, Ruth R. Wisse remembers that she and others present “were laughing so hard that we begged him to stop so that we could catch our breath.” Half a century later, Philip Roth’s most famous—and most notorious—novel seems less fresh, less shocking, and less funny. She writes:
The changed status of this book has a lot to do with what has since happened to this country’s culture, and with the newly precarious standing of its Jews. It is hard to imagine a gathering of Jews convulsed with laughter over this book today.
[Roth’s] timing was perfect. It was because he was not living in Germany, because Goebbels and his family had been driven to suicide, and because American culture was becoming so pagan that he felt no longer bound by taboos, whether personal or public. . . . But then, just try imagining Roth publishing this a little later in his career, say, during the #MeToo movement. Which of the two would have been coming after him first today—the feminists or the anti-Semites?
Yet even if the book has lost some of its appeal, Wisse finds herself able to appreciate it in a different way:
Philip Roth was onto something important that Freud had ignored when he analyzed joking as a creative means of restoring psychological balance. What if there is too much reliance on joking, and the cure proves worse than the disease? Laughter may be an excellent way of coping with anxiety, and is it not wonderful that a quarter century after Treblinka, Maidanek, and Auschwitz, the American branch of a decimated people should have become the national champions of comedy? But Roth identified a streak of hysteria in all that laughter and a heavy dose of pathology in letting it all hang out. Portnoy feared that he was spinning out of control, not just a beneficiary of the sixties but a casualty of its unhinged freedom.