BOOKS OCTOBER 15, 2013
Last year, I attended my first New Republic holiday party. Sometime in the middle of the evening, at a Mexican restaurant in midtown east, I found myself talking to my work pal and a colleague whom I didn’t know well. The topic was Philip Roth. I sipped my margarita silently, waiting for a chance to chime in and bond. Finally, a lull. “I’ve never read any Roth!” I said brightly. There was a moment of silence. The second colleague turned my way.
“Noreen, where in the midwest are you from again?”
The following week, I got a Christmas present from my work pal. It was a slim, hot-pink copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. “So you can understand Jewish men,” he said. (It’s OK; we’ve got a schtick.) I brought it home to Cleveland (the part of the midwest I’m from), and with my stomach full of Christmas ham, started to read it. I began to wonder if I shouldn’t have started with Goodbye, Columbus instead.
It’s not that Portnoy isn’t good. I can see, intellectually, that it’s a good book and that Roth is a supremely skillful writer and that on a sentence-level, he was doing a lot of interesting, playful-but-thoughtful stuff. I can especially see that in 1969, or to an adolescent boy of any era, it is an important, boundary-pushing book. But mostly, I didn’t find it as funny as I knew I was meant to. The famous liver scene? Kinda gross, and also kinda Farrelly brothers. Portnoy’s played-for-laughs shiksa obsession made me cringe, remembering the time a Jewish man said uncomfortably kind things about my nose on a date. I couldn’t stop wondering: what cruel, frank things would Roth have written about MY body and conversational style? The Monkey seemed like a perfectly nice girl: maybe Alexander should have tried a little harder to truly understand her. He made it all about HIS issues, all the time. (A little tough love would have gone a long way, Dr. Spielvogel. Why’d you never chime in? What was he paying you for?) And come on, dude, stop with the Oedipal complex. It’s all a little unsubtle, no?
But I understand why people love Portnoy, because I love Bridget Jones, the third installment of which comes out this week. It is obvious humor reliant on bodily jokes, and I adore it. Actually, to clarify: Just as with Portnoy, to an outsider, it can be broad, and cartoonish. To someone who recognizes herself in it, the arrows couldn’t be aimed more subtly and perfectly and hilariously. When I read the first two Bridget Jones books, I was a teenager, not a city-dwelling Singleton and yet, still, I felt a kinship. She’s a heroine as Portnoy is a hero. They are both comforting in their caricature, giving young readers permission to understand that certain preoccupations will not end with adolescence.
Now, I’m not arguing that Roth and Helen Fielding ought to occupy precisely the same space in the literary pantheon. But their themes are not entirely dissimilar. Like Alexander Portnoy, Bridget Jones is both repulsed by and obsessed with her sins—in her case, more alcohol and calorie-based than sexual. She swills chardonnay with abandon then goes to the gym to repent, or self-flagellates in her version of a therapist’s office, a diary. Her most searing sexual humiliation, which made me shake with laughter and empathy in the way no meat-related masturbation ever could, was the moment the grandmotherly shapewear she’d put on to become more shaggable was exposed to the man she’d taken home to shag. Her parents, like Alexander’s, are constantly needling her (in this case, to be married). And while Portnoy might be an “emotional fuckwit,” she’s attracted to them. Just as Portnoy is shot through with obvious Freudian references, Bridget Jones is one long tip of the bonnet to Jane Austen. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at the printed word as I did the first time I read the section of Edge of Reason in which Bridget (a TV journalist) interviews Colin Firth—who in fact plays Bridget’s love interest Mark Darcy in the movie version— in great and painful detail about his wet-shirt scene in the BBC’s rendition of Pride and Prejudice. (There is now a statue erected to memorialize that scene.)
And Bridget, like Portnoy, is fascinated by the cultural other she both longs for and fears becoming. For her, it’s Smug Marrieds. She worries that every interaction with attractive members of the opposite sex will end in embarrassment, and they frequently do, a self-fulfilling prophecy. She is, despite her blonde and breezy exterior, neurotic to the core. If Portnoy so famously put the id in yid, Bridget puts the oy in goy.
I’m steeling myself for the new Fielding book, which appears after a long hiatus in Jones-world. When I first heard about its existence I began babbling excitedly about The New Republic’s coverage at my desk. My work pal asked—not cruelly—if people would really care. The next week, there was a copy of Bridget Jones on his desk, so that he might understand women.
Still, the premise doesn’t leap out to me as immediately appealing. Bridget, now in her fifties, is widowed, and has to deal with online dating. You can practically hear the editor yelling Internet buzzwords and sales-goals at Fielding. Couldn’t we have just skipped straight to the inevitable Nancy Meyers movie version? Roth didn’t make us check in on middle-aged Portnoy, ensconced in a nice five-bedroom in Teaneck, with two kids in college and a raging crush on the young wife next door. But there is potential. In some ways, the particular-to-women humiliations and hopes that Fielding writes about are only heightened in middle age. Bridget at 50 could be v.g. comedy indeed.