Erotic Interlude: Alexander Portnoy vs. Carrie Bradshaw
By Hapax Legomenon

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"The story was okay, but it sounds a lot like Portnoy," Lisa said to me a day after reading my Miniature Golf story. "Did you do that on purpose? People are just going to read it and compare it to Portnoy's Complaint. Rather than retell Portnoy, you'd be better off writing it with a different character and voice."

I was annoyed. Sure, I had read Phillip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint once upon a time. But why reduce every story to its literary predecessor? That book was certainly notorious, but was it a classic? And could anyone really accuse my story of being a slavish imitation?

"Congratulations," I said. "You're the first woman to know about Portnoy's Complaint. It's a thrilling read for college guys – it's probably their first opportunity to hear the uncensored thoughts of a young man obsessed with sex. Portnoy has a bawdy sense of humor, but he also succeeds with a variety of women in the book – I mean, the women of Roth's imagination. If Portnoy can succeed, there's hope for horny guys everywhere."

"And what about love?" Lisa said.

"What about it?"

"Portnoy seems allergic to it; what he calls love is just an obsession with his own phallus – complete with oral sex, four letter words and Gentile bimbos who cannot speak a coherent sentence. Quite frankly, it's alarming to think this vulgar tale could be regarded as a model for living."

"You are saying nothing new here." I said. "You aren't really his intended audience. How did you find out about it anyway?"

"It was on Travis's bookshelf." Travis was her boyfriend in her final year of college. "I don't think he finished it. There was a bookmark at about page 100, but I went ahead and read the whole thing."

"And what did you think?"

"It had funny moments, and certainly was a fast read, but nothing special. Later I learned the author was highly-regarded in literary circles. Sorry, no more Roth for me."

"Who would be the female Portnoy these days?"

"What a ridiculous question," Lisa said. "The modern woman is already too sexualized in literature and movies. No matter how far civilization advances, there will never be a shortage of stories about woman nymphomaniacs – stories generally written by men, by the way."

"But is Portnoy's Complaint really pornographic fiction?" I asked. "It's pure confession (and self-loathing); men would be more inclined to find it funny than titillating."

"And pathetic."

"Yes. But where are the neurotic sexual confessions by women?"

"Women don't confess," Lisa said. "They chat. They reminisce. They watch Sex in the City episodes."

"So is the Carrie Bradshaw character the female Portnoy?"


"Why not?"

"Carrie Bradshaw is a romantic, a hopeful, positive character. Everyone likes her. Successful, somewhat insecure, but honest about her feelings."

"– who also boinks a lot."

"You're missing the point. For Carrie, sex is not dirty; it's just what normal adults do in their quest for love. But it's also a game, a form of entertainment not to be taken too seriously."

"So Portnoy's problem is that he takes sex too seriously!?"

"Exactly," Lisa agreed. "By obsessing over vulgar anatomical details, Portnoy seems pathetically needy. And so does the character in your story. These Portnoy characters lack a sense of beauty and the sublime. They have no heart."

"It's probably not right to compare a sitcom character with a literary character. The external features are what attracts us to sitcom characters, not their complex interiors. But if Portnoy were a sitcom character played by Jude Law or Chris Noth, would his chauvinistic remarks seem so terrible? Perhaps Carrie might even find it irresistible."

"Don't be silly. Portnoy is an outcast. No outcast can be charming to a woman like Carrie. Carrie enjoys society, while Portnoy seems almost revolted by it. He is socially inept, insecure, angry."

"But is charm really necessary for sympathy?"

"No," she said, "But it is necessary for seduction."

Written, November, 2005

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"Women don't confess. They chat. They reminisce. They watch Sex in the City episodes."
J.W. Godward,  Waiting for an Answer
J.W. Godward, Waiting for an Answer (1889)
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