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.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

“Kinsey wanted Dellenback to film his own staff. There are three ways to read that sentence, all of them true.”

If you’re the kind of person who would like to know the story of how researchers discovered that electrical dick machines can stimulate knee orgasms in paralysed people, oh boy, do I have a book for you.

To give you an idea of the tone of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, here are a selection of chapter titles:

  • Dating the Penis-Camera: Can a Woman Find Happiness with a Machine? [Spoiler: Yes!]
  • Re-Member Me: Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises of Last Resort
  • The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?

This is a hilarious chronicle of science, and the ridiculous lengths some people will go to figure out the most efficient way their bits can fit in people/objects. After Bonk you’ll come away with ridiculous stories, an appreciation for Roach’s sense of humour and renewed gratefulness for puns. This thing is almost annoyingly funny. I kept sniggering, but really, really didn’t want strangers sitting near me on the train to ask me what I was reading. “Oh no, it’s not like that, it’s funny, I promise. Why are you moving seats? There’s no pictures!”

Mary Roach, for our entertainment and knowledge, performed the following acts during her research: measured the length between her clitoris and urethra; observed penile surgery in person, during which metal shafts were inserted right up a man’s shaft; had sex with her husband inside a confining magnetic tube so that researchers could see what people look like inside during the beast with two backs. She then managed to make my most prominent impressions of her as a person ‘shrewd, hard-working and extremely funny’, instead of ‘the woman who was really into weird sex stuff’. She worked too hard for me not to recommend this enthusiastically.