Saturday, 22 December 2012


I have been haunted by Philip Roth's 2008 novel Indignation since I finally read it a week ago, turning it over and over in my head, as if to replay and perhaps restage some of its conflicts, as if to acknowledge just how closely it taps into my own apprehensions of the world as it was shown to me in my youth, and as if to marvel again at the way Roth can render all this relevant to a world which his protagonist, Marcus Messner, would never have been able to comprehend.

As a coming of age story, Roth treads the familiar ground of Newark, set out in many of the amazing novels of his late renaissance, but he also looks back, clearly, with Marcus' relationship with his father, a kosher butcher, to Portnoy's Complaint, and in his infatuation with Olivia Hutton, the damaged WASPy girl he meets at Winesburg College to his novella Goodbye Columbus, which was, I still believe, the outstanding work of his early years. In that story, there is a world that is unapproachable, one that lives by different rules, or pretends too, and Neil Klugman cannot react with enough indignation, or knows the danger of so doing. In the present novel, allowing for that possibility, makes Indignation much more, it is  a novel of eros and thanatos, sex and death, something growing out of the Fiedlerian mainstream of Freudian American post-war fiction whose crest Roth initially rode. But it's also more than that—it's a transformation of the personal into a fable worthy of the best of Hawthorne, but one that encapsulates the whole period of Roth's own life, the latter half of the 20th Century,

Indignation is set in the era into which I was born—the Korean War is in progress, the draft looms over the shoulders of the non-deferred, and Marcus' father, as he graduates from high school and from his post as his father's aide in the butcher's shop, is growing more and more obsessive about protecting his son—not just from that war, but from the changes in American society brought on by the just-completed war, by the growing prosperity, and the freedoms it brings with it. Marcus is a 'good' boy—hard-working in the family business and at school, respectful, even a moderately good second-baseman on the baseball team. He heads off to Robert Treat College, in Newark, where he finds himself challenged and finds some of his horizons growing—but the spectre of his father's control leads him to transfer to Winesburg, a Lutheran college in Ohio, where he is very much the outsider (remember Roth at Bucknell). He works as a waiter, he feuds with his roommates, then with his next roommate, he studies, and eventually he falls for a girl.

Who gives him a blow job on their first date. This behaviour is incomprehensible to Marcus, he is a 'good' boy and this is something 'good' girls do not do. Trying to comprehend it—is it because her parents are divorced? Because she has suicide scars on her wrists?--throws Marcus for a loop, a first step toward a crumbling of the world as he understands it. This process is reinforced by the attentions of the Dean, with whom Marcus winds up debating and arguing over his own lack of involvement in the school's social life (something that is de facto limited by his being Jewish), and by his requirement to attend chapel—to which he objects not because he is Jewish but because he considers himself an atheist. For the first time, Marcus finds himself rebelling, almost instinctively, and certainly beyond his control.

He winds up ill, in the hospital, where his relationship with Olivia is rekindled and then lost after his mother arrives, with the revelation that she intends to divorce his father. A barter is made, lives seem ruined, the campus explodes in a snowball fight, and Marcus winds up being expelled, and exposed to the draft. And the story, we have learned, is being narrated from the afterlife, because Marcus was killed in Korea shortly before the cessation of hostilities.

There is a lot of plot synopsis above, but I honestly find it hard to explain why this novel is so powerful without setting out the story. What makes it linger is the honest befuddlement of Marcus (names, as ever, are important to Roth--'mess' ner, Winesburg with its association with Sherwood Anderson, Robert Treat, the Puritan from my home town in Connecticut, and so on) and the way he is let down by the expectations of both his Jewish upbringing and of 'mainstream' America, how those combine to create a lethal cocktail, and it is enough to raise Roth's, and our, indignation. As I said, it's a book about America, but it's also about the direct link between sex and death, being narrated after that death. In that sense, I think the British cover (above) and the US cover (right) needed to be amalgamated for a more telling effect.

Indignation by Philip Roth
Vintage 2009, £7.99, ISBN 9780099523420

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