A Roth character considers life's folly from beyond the grave
Of how many writers can it be said that they're still producing some of their best work well into their 70s? With this, his 24th novel, Philip Roth proves beyond any dispute that he deserves to be counted in that select group.
Indignation opens in one of Roth's favorite settings: his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. The year is 1950, and 18-year-old Marcus Messner dutifully pursues his high school studies while working in his father's kosher butcher shop, awaiting the day when he can begin his higher education. But after only one year at a local college, he flees Newark to escape his father's obsessive concern for his well-being, transferring to Winesburg College, a small Ohio school he chooses based on a catalog photograph. There, he's driven to excel in his studies, both to earn his way into law school and to avoid the catastrophe of being drafted to serve in Korea, a specter that stalks him daily.
Strikingly, as we learn early in the novel, Marcus is hardly a typical narrator, telling his story after he has died a premature death (the grisly and ironic circumstances of which are disclosed only in the novel's concluding pages). From that vantage point, he's troubled by the banality of his afterlife, where he's apparently destined to "muck over a lifetime's minutiae," including his failed relationship with Olivia Hutton, the troubled girl who's responsible for his sexual initiation, or the bizarre chain of circumstances that lead to his demise.
The novel abounds with grimly funny set pieces, most prominently Marcus' confrontation with Dean Caudwell, who summons the young man to his office when he requests reassignment to a single room after disastrous encounters with two roommates. For some 20 pages, Marcus and the Dean conduct a spirited intellectual joust, until Marcus finally explodes, spouting the atheist creed of Bertrand Russell to give voice to his protest over the college's requirement that he suffer through 40 sessions of compulsory chapel in order to graduate. Another, the conversation in which Marcus' mother exacts a promise that he will abandon Olivia in return for her agreement not to initiate divorce proceedings against his father, is both absurd and painfully realistic.
Indignation reprises many of the themes that have marked Roth's career, among them religion, sexuality and death. Here he's chosen to depart dramatically from the subject matter of his recent novels, Everyman and Exit Ghost, with their focus on aging men in the throes of physical decay. Instead, echoes of his much earlier works, from Goodbye, Columbus to Portnoy's Complaint are threaded throughout the novel, and it's refreshing to see an accomplished author who's able to reimagine elements of those classic works so dynamically.
In the words of the Yiddish proverb, "Man plans, God laughs." Or, as Roth puts it, Marcus Messner's tragic tale educates us about how "the terrible, incomprehensible way one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate results." However you choose to view it, Philip Roth is a masterful guide to this rueful fact of life.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.