Indignation by Philip Roth (2008) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2008) 235 pp
I know that I recently posted a review on American Pastoral, so you might be getting tired of my posts on Roth (I’m sorry, but they won’t stop soon — he’s now got 29 books) but how could I, after converting to a full-fledged fan of Roth pass up the opportunity to review Indignation the week it came out? And could the title say anything about how Roth feels in today’s America? And here’s another text-only cover design by Milton Glaser, extending the Roth-Glaser relationship. The book itself is quite quaint and attractive, being about the same size as a trade paperback.
This books is not a novel — not by my standards anyway. It took me less time to read than it takes me for most short stories; that’s partly because Roth’s prose is so smooth, but mostly it’s because the book is extremely short. Though it clocks in at around 230 pages, each pages is larger than usual print, larger than usual margins, and larger than usual spacing between lines. I’m not sure why it has been toted as a novel. That actually might lead to some disappointment because it is simply not deep enough to constitute a novel, especially not by Roth’s own standards.
I have to admit, I’ve been looking forward to this book, even though initial plot blurbs made it sound like many other Roth books: young Newark Jew who is trying to get out from under the tyranny of his father winds up getting into even more trouble. Indignation, though relatively slight, is much more than that.
Here we meet Marcus Messner, a nineteen-year-old Newark Jew who has always been a good kid. It’s 1951, and he’s just completing his first year at Robert Treat University in Newark. He’s loving it. The professors are invigorating. The ideas are flowing. He’s on track to become valedictorian. On the other side of the world, the Korean War is in full swing. Perhaps it’s because his son is now capable of going off to war and dying for his country that makes Marcus’s father become a bit more protective.
Whatever the cause or mix of causes fueling the abrupt change in his previously benign paternal behavior, he manifested his fear by hounding me day and night about my whereabouts. Where were you? Why weren’t you home? How do I know where you are when you go out? You are a boy with a magnificent future before you — how do I know you’re not going to places where you can get yourself killed?
After a night studying at the library, Marcus returns home to find the door locked. His father has ceased to trust his straight-A son and has locked him out of the house as a lesson to not go wandering off to whorehouses at night.
Unable to handle so much protection and distrust, Marcus flees Newark and winds up in Ohio’s Winesburg College, a place that could be even more cloistered and vigorously defensive of its standards. In an ugly twist of historic placing, Marcus is forced to accept all of these standards:
The strong desire to rush off to the bathroom was quelled by my fear that if I did so, I might get caught by a librarian or a teacher or even by an honorable student, be expelled from school, and wind up a rifleman in Korea.
But the pressure mounts. Marcus has altercations with a couple of his roommates. He finds himself suddenly involved in a tryst with an emotionally unstable girl. And underneath it is a bitter resentment of the system in place at Winesburg. He begins to skirt the line leading to expulsion, and even flaunts his unconventional beliefs to an impressed Dean who nonetheless must express his dissatisfaction with Marcus’s path:
“I admire your directness, your diction, your sentence structure — I admire your tenacity and the confidence with which you hold to everything you say. I admire your ability to memorize and retain abstruse reading matter even if I don’t necessarily admire whom and what you choose to read and the gullibility with which you take at face value rationalist blasphemies spouted by an immoralist of the ilk of Bertrand Russell, four times married, a blatant adulterer, an advocate of free love, a self-confessed socialist dismissed from his university position for his antiwar campaigning during the First War and imprisoned for that by the British authorities.”
“But what about the Nobel Prize!”
What makes all of this more interesting is the fact that we already know — and this is not a spoiler since you can find it in many of the reviews already published and in the first few pages of the book — that Marcus is dead, or perhaps on the fringe of death in a morphine-induced coma.
And even dead, as I am and have been for I don’t know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen.
We even know how he dies, if we’re paying attention to the not-so-subtle clues. But we’re not sure how he gets there. And even that’s not fully the point. What we get is an interesting look at how history intrudes and overtakes, arbitrarily, a young, basically innocent boy. Rather than focusing on youth and social mores, then, Roth’s theme, as in the past few books, is centered on death and mortality. Unlike Everyman, however, here we see it from the perspective a boy with a bright future, not from an elderly man who has already lived a bitter life.
Unfortunately, I craved a bit of the festering bitterness. Marcus’s character might be indignant, but he’s not cynical yet. He’s a bit too immature to be fully bitter. Mostly he’s responding to emotions that flare up whenever someone attempts to give him direction, like many nineteen year olds. I’m not saying Roth failed to execute what he planned — indeed, Marcus’s voice was very convincingly innocent and unassuming and indignant — it’s just that I was not as interested in what Marcus had to say as I have been in some of Roth’s prior characters.
Still, while the title of the book come from the Chinese national anthem and the book takes place nearly 60 years ago, it was easy to associate both the title and the themes to America’s situation today. That’s a point that is never explicit, but anyone who walks into a book store and sees the title should make the association naturally, even if that person is not aghast when thinking about America’s plight. The book works very well on this level of analysis too.
Basically, I came away pleased but not to the same degree I have come to expect from Roth. He usually succeeds in delving much deeper and being much more nuanced. This book felt more like a quick project, a great exercise in masterful writing but that doesn’t quite live up to its thematic potential (like McEwan’s On Chesil Beach). Still, it’s tightly woven and compelling. I just wouldn’t recommend it to people for their first go with Roth.