“Indignation,” the twenty-ninth novel from American writer Philip Roth, represents a unique transposition of the themes of his recent work. The concerns that occupied the ageing protagonist of, say, “Everyman” (2006)—the fragility of the body, the steady march of mortality—all these are present in the story of the much younger Marcus Messner.
Marcus is driven from his home in Newark, New Jersey, where he attends a local college, when his father, a kosher butcher, suddenly develops an irrational and incapacitating paranoia—he becomes convinced that his scrupulous and bookish son is in infinite danger and needs to be strictly guarded. Marcus relocates almost indiscriminately to Winesburg College in rural north-central Ohio, where the bulk of the novel unfolds.
All his actions here are driven by fear of the draft—it is the early Fifties and the Korean War is claiming thousands of young lives. He knows he will have to distinguish himself academically at Winesburg in order to avoid carnage overseas.
In one of the novel’s most brilliant parallels, Marcus’s dread of bloodshed in Korea is intertwined with his family’s history as butchers (the name Messner undoubtedly a play on the traditional German butcher surname “Metzner”). Marcus narrates:
I knew what blood looked like, encrusted around the necks of the chickens where they had been ritually slaughtered, dropping out of the beef onto my hands when I was cutting a rib steak along the bone, seeping through the brown paper bags despite the wax paper wrappings within, settling into the grooves crosshatched into the chopping block by the force of the cleaver crashing down.His nightmares of butchery amount to a paranoia that rivals even his father’s, but which is still not enough to offset his profound sense of disorientation (and indignation) at conservative Winesburg. A series of at first commonplace encounters with peers and faculty earn him an unwanted notoriety and, as they build in intensity, take on the weight and drive of inevitable tragedy. As Roth puts it, “One’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”
The novel is often compelling, and certainly memorable. Where Roth succeeds most, as always, is in the power of his prose and the size of his ideas. Gems of insight and an infinite series of questions alike burst out of every single page. This is especially true of the dialogue. Perhaps the most remarkable scene is Marcus’s first, pivotal confrontation with the Dean of Men—an all-out values war between the atheist Marcus (drawing heavily on Bertrand Russell) and the traditionalist Dean, with neither devolving into caricature.
Roth’s juxtaposition of humor, shock, and gravity is also as scintillating as ever. As a bemused Marcus reacts to a series of unexpected sexual encounters, we know that tragedy only looms nearer in an environment that condemns sexual expression.
“Indignation” is by no means Roth’s most accomplished book, however. The narrator, though astute and incisive, is not completely credible. Simply put, Roth is better suited to write as an older sophisticate than he is a young sophisticate. The attempts he makes at a more natural voice come off halfhearted and awkward (“And lessons I loved—bring them on!”). That he narrates from a netherworld between life and death also strains believability.
In addition, the tragedy is imperfect. By the end of the novel, some pieces already feel superfluous—the tragic inevitability is not watertight. The ending itself comes off perfunctory and the ideas jumbled, as if we’re not sure what to take away from it.
“Indignation” is a fine novel and perhaps of particular interest to college students in and around north-central Ohio. However, first-time Roth readers would be better advised to start elsewhere.