Philip Roth taught me everything I know about men, or at least most of what I’ve needed to know. I was probably 19 when I read “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the novel the New Yorker called “the dirtiest book ever published” and whose countless masturbation scenes including one in which the young narrator, Alexander Portnoy, achieves sexual fulfillment with a slab of liver that his mother later serves for dinner.
At that time in my life, I was trying to figure out how men’s minds worked and, more urgently, how good writing worked. Roth, who died on Tuesday, was helpful on both fronts. He went on to become probably my favorite 20th century novelist; over the years I ripped off his style and attempted to copy his narrative moves more times than I can count.
Almost as significantly, Roth functioned as a portal into the adult male psyche in all its brutality and stupidity. I attended a historically all-female college where most men hid their more primal impulses behind a scrim of good manners and artsy, often androgynous urbanity. Roth’s men, on the other hand, were as animalistic as they were urbane. They contained news I could use, especially about the way they viewed women. It wasn’t always happy news, but I appreciated the honesty.
This is to say that adjacent to Roth’s literary influence lay a blueprint for sexual dynamics between men and women that I employed in my own dating life. With it, I began to understand that any woman who sits across from a man in a bar is on some level sitting across from an ape. Temper your expectations and you might be amused and have a good time. Demand that your companion be your evolutionary equal and you’re in for a world of pain — and not just from a concussion caused by the falling rocks of the surprisingly precarious patriarchy.
Like a lot of male writers of his time, Roth tended to punt when it came to female characters, focusing more on their physical flesh than the fully fleshed-out personalities and psychological complexities he gave his male characters, particularly his protagonists. Even after his critics gave up on calling him a self-hating Jew, he was still being called a misogynist for writing women who seemed to lack souls, personal agency, a sense of humor and in some cases any narrative purpose other than exposing the helplessness and deep existential torment of the male protagonist.
Roth, according to the scholar Mary Allen, sustained “an enormous rage and disappointment with womankind.” In a 2008 Harper’s article, the writer Vivian Gornick alleged that Roth belonged to “a cohort of novelists who have an infantile preoccupation with themselves.” In a Guardian review of Roth’s 2001 novel “The Dying Animal,” British novelist and journalist Linda Grant wrote, “[T]here is in [Roth] dark distaste for women, a repugnance that can only be described by the word misogyny.”
Notwithstanding that Grant’s observation is a lot like one you might see in Roth’s satirical depictions of postmodern academics, it also seems backward. Roth trafficked heavily in repugnance all right, but it was repugnance aimed inward. Even when I was 19 and wondering what to make of Portnoy’s shorthand names for his non-Jewish girlfriends — the Pilgrim, the Pumpkin, the Monkey — it was clear that what was in play wasn’t so much hatred of women but rather a chronic and all-encompassing sense of inferiority to them. In Roth’s world, male entitlement was a broad scale disguise for male failure. Womankind was the source of enormous rage and disappointment, but mankind was the source of weakness and shame so unshakeable it took him 27 novels and at least one memoir to work through it.
Roth often responded to the misogyny charges by arguing that his real subject was “masculine power impaired.” Some feminists dismiss that as a rhetorical dodge, and one that can’t possibly hold up in the era of Trump and #MeToo. But I would argue that impaired masculine power is in fact the real subject of this age.
It’s easy to see the ways that the behavior of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk bear the imprimatur of classic male entitlement. But “Portnoy’s Complaint” reveals the way their behavior is simply pathetic, a testament to entitlement that’s loud, nearly inescapable, but also fundamentally hollow. Weinstein, after all, is alleged to have masturbated into a potted plant. He doesn’t earn as many originality points as Portnoy, but he certainly occupies that same brutal, stupid territory Roth conjured when creating his male characters.
I am grateful for the blueprint Roth drew all those years ago. In granting me access to the interior lives of men whose dominance was always on the verge of being annihilated by their vulnerabilities, he effectively handed their power to me. He taught me that as seriously as some men may take themselves, the best thing that women can do to combat patriarchal indignities is not take men very seriously at all. And lest we forget it, just think of raw liver.