Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

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So… this was unusual.

Alexander Portnoy is a confused man ranting to his psychiatrist about how he lives in a state of unfulfillment and desire, obsessed with sex and his own guilt. This book is like listening to this narcissistic, sex-obsessed asshole for three-hundred pages. Your tolerance may understandably vary.

It is funny, though.

I finished this three weeks ago, but kept putting off writing a single word about it. Pathos bleeds out over the pages, but I couldn’t recomend reading this because it was just so one-note. There are dirty jokes mixed with a weirdly affecting anecdote over, and over, and over again, and if that’s your bag you’re in for a treat, but I got the bored of the humour after a hundred pages. The next two-hundred plus were Roth beating (off) a dead horse.

The moment which best sums up the novel comes when Portnoy’s sister becomes dismayed for the victims of the holocaust. It’s a comparatively serious, heart-wrenching scene. His selfishness, narcisism and self-loathing results in the heart-breaking line, “she sheds her tears for six million, or so I think, while I shed mine only for myself. Or so I think.”

This is immediately followed by the next chapter:

CUNT CRAZY.

Did I mention that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?

Portnoy’s Complaint is like a night out in a drunken, messy part of town: it can be hilarious, but after all is said and done your head hurts and you feel dirty.

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A Painful Truth: Review of ‘The Sixth Extinction’ by Elizabeth Kolbert

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There’s a reflexive eye-roll people get when they’re told apocalyptic scenarios about our environment. It’s understandable. In the information age, dire predictions are so common that they’re dull and suspicious since tragedy and disaster have passed into in the domain of clickbait. Parsing truth from hysteria can be tricky. That’s where talented nonfiction writers can come in handy. The Sixth Extinction is a sobering book which reminds us just how urgent the situation on our planet is.

Kolbert looks at past and present extinction events to help us understand our changing world. We now take it for granted that the Earth is in a constant state of flux, but the idea of extinction—something every five year old in England will now be familiar with—is actually relatively new, and was shockingly controversial when first unearthed. Its discovery, denial, and acceptance into the pantheon of accepted scientific theories is made especially poignant here, paralleling the current struggle for the acceptance of man-made global warming in the face of staunch denial, and despite the weight of evidence.

Instead of focusing solely on the global repercussions of humanity, smaller stories are woven together to form a larger picture of our past, present and future. By making each global extinction understandable there’s urgency without alarmism.

Moving between travelogue to analysis about the impact of the Anthropocene, we are forced to confront our impact on the world. The changes we’re making aren’t solely through pollution; our travel spreads fungus and is shifting the ecological balance of every remote region on the planet.

An example of the cheerful facts presented may be appropriate: the oceans are in trouble. This will not be news to anyone who reads this. An ocean so polluted as to be literally acidic, though? This sounds like something out a Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, so nightmarish a scenario that it could be rejected as over-the-top if seen as an offhand detail in works of dystopian sci-fi. Could humanity really have that much of an impact on our planet? Well, yes. The evidence points to that being one of our more lasting legacies.

As we read, the planet’s fauna and flora destroy and rebuild, destroy and rebuild, are destroyed and rebuild, etc. and Kolbert is level-headed in emphasizing that, eventually, life adapts. That is on a multi-million timescale, though, and if things don’t change the species we share this planet with are facing annihilation. George Carlin’s words: “The planet is fine. The people [and species] are fucked.”