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Book Review: Indignation by Philip Roth

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Philip Roth has delivered his third short novel in as many years. But whereas Everyman (2006) and Exit Ghost (2007) dealt with aging protagonists grappling with physical decline and looming death, Indignation is a coming-of-age story about a contentious teenager. Then again, this is a teenager dealing with looming death — thus proving that, with Roth, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In fact, this novel seems to bring us back full circle to Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s first book from 1959. Almost a half-century has elapsed, but Roth is again taking on 1950s morality, the travails of young love (and sexuality), university life, the U.S. military, and generational tensions. These are Roth’s specialties, and reeling off the list makes me feel like a waiter talking about the chef’s classic dishes made available again as tonight’s menu additions. But the piquant flavor of the 1950s, which merely stood as the status quo for Roth in Goodbye, Columbus, is now a familiar ingredient in the type of modern American period fiction that has gradually become another Roth trademark. So much so, that I now wait for the President of the United States to figure in every Roth novel I read, much like Hitchcock making a cameo appearance in his movies, even if (as in Lifeboat) it is only via a newspaper passing through the narrative.

Yet Roth’s strangest twist here is his introduction of a dead protagonist. This is always an unsettling device, whether it emerges in the second sentence (as in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones), or at the end of the story (as in the film American Beauty). My favorite example is Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, where the reader gradually realizes over the course of the novel that most of the main characters might be dead. Roth, in contrast, is not quite so dramatic. He handles the disclosure that his narrator is deceased almost as an aside, about a quarter of the way into the book.

His oh-by-the-way manner of revealing this is surprising, despite its casual delivery. But even more surprising is how little Roth makes use of this unusual narrative perspective. He offers up a description of the afterlife that is so sparse and succinct, that he might as well be describing a room at Motel 6. (Clean, comfortable, quiet… what more is there to say?) Marcus Messner, our hero, merely lets it drop that he is dead, shares a few meager details, then goes on with his story.

This tale turns on Messner’s struggles to release himself from the controlling instincts of his father, a kosher butcher who can’t seem to accept that his college-age son has a life of his own. Finally the youngster decides that he needs to leave his New Jersey home, and arranges for a transfer to a small college in Ohio. The college is called Winesburg, but this is not Sherwood Anderson territory. Roth plays masterfully with all his familiar themes: the impinging of historical events (the Korean War, in this instance) on day-to-day realities; Jewish identity in American life; getting laid; tempers running out of control; and other matters that we have seen in his previous novels.

Flaming tempers play a major role in the plot. Even if Messner falls short of previous Rothian exemplars of Indignation with a capital I, such as the young terrorist who bombs buildings (in American Pastoral) or the crazed veteran out for blood (in The Human Stain), he nonetheless finds he has a short fuse that causes recurring problems. The conflict with his father is followed by battles with two different roommates at Winesburg, and then a heated encounter with a Dean.

This latter conversation, spurred ostensibly by the college’s requirement that students attend chapel services, follows in the steps of Bertrand Russell’s position in his famous lecture / essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.” By Roth’s own admission, much of Messner’s argument is taken verbatim from Russell. Yet at other times our hero finds that a thrown punch is even more satisfying than a philosopher’s ratiocinations in resolving disagreements. Time and time again, Messner seems driven to escalate conflicts that he might just as easily ignore. These eventually cascade into a spiral of indignation that threatens to backfire on him, perhaps even cause his (as we know) inevitable death.

During the course of this short novel, Roth sets up many fascinating and memorable scenes. The encounters between Messner and Dean Caudwell are engaging, as is Roth’s spirited description of a snowball fight that veers out of control until it almost takes on Day of the Locust proportions. The ensuing speech by the angry President of Winesburg is also handled with high drama. Messner’s puzzled reaction to a first date that goes too well also stands out.

Yet too many of these vibrant interludes in Indignation leave the reader hanging. In a longer novel, Roth would do so much more with Messner’s suicidal girlfriend Olivia Hutton, his eccentric Oscar-Wilde-ish roommate Bertram Flusser, the politically savvy Winesburg President Albin Leintz, and other high octane characters. At times the narrative seems rushed, and this change in pacing is all the more noticeable when Roth slows down and delivers the goods.

Yet Roth’s unflagging productivity in his mid-seventies is something to celebrate. This author may have written two dozen or so novels, but he shows no sign of slowing down or of exhausting his capacity for story-telling. There was enough gusto in Indignation to keep me primed for the next book. And with The Humbling slated for 2009 release, it seems that we can continue to count (at least for the time being) on a Philip Roth novel as an annual event.

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About Ted Gioia

  • “Yet Roth’s strangest twist here is his introduction of a dead

    Protag isn’t dead, he’s dying.

  • Roth told an interviewer, after the book was published, that his protagonist is in a coma and not really dead. But this is not made clear in the book. In fact, the narrator tells the readers that he is dead. There is no mention of a coma, dying, etc. I can only review the novel Roth wrote, and don’t really know how to address additional plot details added in interviews after publication.

  • Read the next-to-last chapter in the actual book. Starts on page 225.

  • There is no mention on p. 225, or anywhere else in this novel, that the story is narrated while the protagonist is in a coma. Instead, we find:

    Page 54: “dead as I am and have been for I don’t know how long.”
    Page 200: “I knew without a doubt . . . would turn out to be the angel of death.”
    Page 226: “Now he was well and truly dead.”