I guess it’s not surprising that Philip Roth is the latest literary darling to jump on the trend of adapting his work to comic-book form. Perhaps inspired by David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik’s City of Glass or Asaf Hanuka’s Pizzeria Kamikaze, or in a bid to seem relevant amongst younger Jews-about-town like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, Roth has commissioned a graphic novel of his 1969 opus Portnoy’s Complaint.
What is surprising is his choice of artist. Rather than R. Crumb or Art Spiegelman, artists with similar enshrined statuses in their fields and somewhat Rothy down-and-dirty semi-confessional aesthetics, he tapped prince of the pretty-boys Craig Thompson.
Portnoy’s Complaint the graphic novel is a fairly slim volume (it was apparently drawn right before Thompson began the final pages for Habibi) coming out next year from Houghton Mifflin. I was of course able to get a galley due to my mad connections in the jewy/comicky/academic world.
Thompson’s drawing style fits the narrative seamlessly sometimes; his swoopy expressionism sets off the various flashbacks well, and the scenes set in the psychologist’s office show Alexander Portnoy (Good Bye Chunky Rice style) adrift on his couch in a swirling sea, while Spielvogel looms like an impassive, wooden dock. Thompson also has had a lot of practice conveying acute shame on pious young boys, which make the bar mitzvah lesson scenes and the liver masturbation scene even more tortured and memorable than in prose.
But in the adult flashbacks, there’s a real tension between the approaches of the two authors’ literary personas: Roth the great misogynist and Thompson the rapturous girl-worshipper. Despite a lot of similarities one can draw between Thompson’s oeuvre and Portnoy (flashbacks, childhood trauma as a key to adult dysfunction, outsized sexual longing), I got to wondering if Roth chose Thompson for the book just to watch him squirm.
The squirm of the artist is practically palpable in the oral sex scenes (man do I wish I was allowed to scan and post those). And when portraying the shallow, illiterate supermodel lust/hate object known as the Monkey, Thompson, without veering from the text, makes her a lot more human than Alexander can see (maybe as a working class small-town Midwestern boy himself, Thompson identified with her more than the protagonist).
Sometimes Thompson goes too far in trying to pretty everything up; the Portnoys mostly seem like nice, vaguely ethnic people rather than the “Jewish joke” Roth described them as. But the mis-fit of Thompson and Portnoy makes a really fascinating text and counter-text (or second text) interplay. Thompson foregrounds the fight that is often overlooked in the text, by embodying with his art style the Nice Jewish Boy masking the Dirty Jew-boy inside.
It’s a bit rocky in places, but I think it’s my favourite Roth creation, and just might be my favourite Thompson creation as well. You should look out for it.