Philip Roth: Indignation

Before you read the book:

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 (2008) 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, and that’s partly because Roth’s prose is so smooth but mostly 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 Winesberg.  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 ellude 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.

17 thoughts on “Philip Roth: Indignation

  1. Isabel says:

    The Garden District Bookshop had this event two days ago: September 16th
    Philip Roth Webcast Interview -
    Indignation

    If I find something about the interview, I’ll let you know.

  2. I actually was planning to go to the broadcast in the Tribeca Barnes & Noble in Lower Manhattan, but there happened to be a grand opening of a new Barnes & Noble close to home. So with my family I went and enjoyed the festivities. I’d love to get a hold of the interview if anyone knows whether it’s floating around somewhere on the internet.

  3. KevinfromCanada says:

    I do quite like the notion that family and proximity take precedence over a “big time” broadcast. I will also admit a personal bias from my days as a book editor — authors are better read than they are met. That doesn’t mean they are all terrible people, but a remarkable number who write quite good books are. I’d rather like the book than hate the person.

    Having said all that, Updike has a new (dreadful looking) book coming out. Perhaps you could cadge an invite to the launch and report on that? Although I would certainly prefer the stance of “I read books, I don’t interview them”.

    Cheers,

    Kevin

  4. When you say authors are better read than met, I happen to agree, Kevin. A few years ago I was going all over to see certain authors speak. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t care much for what they said, especially in a short one hour impersonal venue. I’d rather engage in a conversation such as goes on in these comments than listen to many of these authors speak about why their book is important.

    That said, I’ve listened to a few interviews with Philip Roth and I think he agrees with us. Because of that, his rare interviews are quite fascinating. I also like what I’ve seen from Cormac McCarthy, probably because he talks a lot about style. Norman Mailer and those who’ve assumed his spot, on the other hand, . . .

  5. John Self says:

    Roth’s rare interviews are becoming more and more unrare! I’ve heard or read three with him in the UK alone in the past week for the publication of Indignation! Most reviews, incidentally, seem to agree with you Trevor, so I’ll probably hold off on this one while continuing to explore Roth’s rich back catalogue.

  6. John, interestingly the NY Times daily agreed with me but the weekend book review thought a lot more of it. Perhaps it is best approached as a slightly long short story.

  7. It seems unfortunate that such an unbelievably short piece of writing has been brazenly marketed by publishers as a novel. Almost any short story outlet would have killed to publish it. Roth could have helped out the magazine that gave him a break 50 years ago — The Paris Review.

  8. There have definitely been several analogous cases recently – McEwan’s On Chesil Beach coming to mind right now.

    I don’t know if I’m the best to shout against this, though. I bought it! And I’m sure the allure of his next shorty will pull me in too!

  9. This might interest other Roth fans. Last April, for Roth’s 75th birthday, a bunch of people who know got together at Columbia and honored him and his work. Roth addressed the audience at the end. Fortunately, our local treasure WNYC recorded the whole thing and have provided the recordings here. I’m downloading it as I write this. Enjoy!

  10. Here is a more positive review of Indignation in a past issue of NYRB. I post it here because it helped me appreciate the book more in retrospect.

    Watch out for spoilers, though, as the review is more concerned with discussing the novel as a whole and not just to say whether it’s good or bad.

  11. KevinfromCanada says:

    I did find this NYRB review very interesting, in the way that it located Indignation in the context of the rest of Roth’s work. Given that and your review, I’m inclined to give it a try down the road sometime — I’m thinking I’ll try Sabbath’s Theater first.

    Did you also notice the same NYRB issue had a very positive review of The Lazarus Project? Having said that, it was one of those positive reviews that left me thinking “I don’t think I’m going to like this book very much”. It is next on my list as my final NBA book and I’ll post below your review when I’m done. I did give the start a quick glance a few days ago and can’t say that it drew me right in.

  12. I haven’t read Sabbath’s Theater yet, Kevin, though I think I’ll enjoy it based on what I have heard. I think I’ve sufficiently built up my ability to consume what is apparently the Rothian of all of Roth’s works. I still have the rest of the American Trilogy to work through, and then I have Goodbye Columbus on the shelf too. We’ll see when I work my way to Sabbath’s Theater.

    On the other note, I did not see the review of Hemon, though I will check it out. I feel I gave the book a fair shot, but I’m sure I missed some things that might make it a bit better in my mind. Then again, it’s one of those books that I don’t really care if I like it more after reading a more insightful review. It didn’t leave me with a lot of feeling one way or the other. Anxious to hear your thoughts, though.

  13. KevinfromCanada says:

    Since it is your positive impression of Roth that has caused me to revisit my opinion, I thought I should post a thought or two on Indignation. I know I said I was going to read Sabbath’s Theater first but I can only find used versions which take longer to ship, so Indignation arrived first.

    I don’t regret my choice — while it may be slight in length and somewhat less complex than most of Roth’s work, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m less critical of Roth’s development of Marcus’ as a character than you are, because I found that absence strengthened the impact of the conflicting forces around him. Those conflicting forces — and the forces of the time — are what I think the book is really about. I agree that someone who has read none of Roth would get a misleading impression from this book. Those who know have had even a little exposure to him won’t have that problem.

    I think your comment and comparison with On Chesil Beach is a very fair observation. In both cases, I feel the author has chosen to deliberately “shrink” the scope and length of his project to achieve a greater focus on what he does talk about. Both books succeed.

    So I’m glad to have started this revisiting project. If Sabbath’s Theater doesn’t show up in time, I’m think I’ll try Everyman (based on the comment in your review) and then maybe return to the American Pastoral trilogy. And, as a side effect to this project, I’m interchanging Roth books with Saul Bellow — just started Humbolt’s Gift this afternoon.

  14. I’m glad you liked Indignation, Kevin. As time has passed, I like it more and more. Along with that, Marcus becomes more and more real. Somehow Roth has managed to create a character that when I first read didn’t quite seem realistic but who won’t leave me alone – and now he’s about as real as the Swede, but not quite as real as, say, Zuckerman.

    I think some of this has to do with a point you brought up:

    Those conflicting forces – and the forces of the time – are what the book is really about.

    With distance from the book, those elements really stand out.

    I’m anxious for your thoughts on Everyman. It was my first Roth, and at the time I was very pleased but didn’t quite get it. I have revisited it since getting to know Roth better and was blown away. In fact, I am thinking of revisiting it again for a review here.

    Also, not sure if I told you or not, but I’ve got Augie Marsh on the way. So hopefully my relationship with Bellow will begin very soon.

  15. KevinfromCanada says:

    Since you said you were interested in my opinion, I have now read Everyman and must say, somewhat reluctantly, I did not like it at all. In a short book, it has all the characteristics of Roth books I don’t like — a not very interesting central character, no other character development and a relentless depressing narrative, offset occasionally by some sex.

    I suspect someone who knows New Jersey better than I do would find the context more interesting — but unlike authors who teach me something about places I don’t know, Roth seems to require an existing understanding.

    I should also admit that 2008 has been a bad year for relatives and good friends dying — I’ve been to more funerals than I was meant for in the past 11 months (and as a former newspaper publisher, with 100s of pensioners on the rolls, I used to go to a lot of funerals). So the funerals — and relentless accounts of stays in hospital — were almost as annoying to me as they were to the central character. That may well be my fault, rather than Roth’s, for attempting the book at this time.

  16. I can’t say whether this year is the reason you did not like Everyman, Kevin, but it sounds like it must have had something to do with it. It is a bleak book. It’s been a while since I read it, and I’m interested in revisiting it now I’ve read some Roth and your thoughts on the book. I’d like to see what made it a powerful book to me the first time. I do think that knowing the landscape helped with this book, or at least it helped me. As with the other books, I knew a lot of the areas Roth described, and it was fun to have those settings described by a master.

    I wonder: did reading this closely to Indignation have an effect on your enjoyment?

  17. KevinfromCanada says:

    I don’t think reading this book closely to Indignation had an effect — reading it right after Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift (which I thoroughly enjoyed and feel is a very good book) might have had something to do with it. The two books have some, but not all, themes in common. I do think I would have liked Everyman better if I had identifed with the geography and community more — having said that, I still don’t think it would have overcome using hospital operations and funerals as the unifying theme.

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