Saturday, February 27, 2010

Philip Roth's "Indignation"

Spoiler alert:I am going to talk about Philip Roth's new novel, Indignation in some detail. If you have not read it, and if you have any interest in Roth and want to read it, you may want to skip this posting.

First, it's short; 233 pages that are only a little larger than the average paperback. The first 224 pages, titled "Under Morphine," are told in the first person by 19-year-old Marcus Messer who is either dead or on the verge of death. The next seven pages are an objective account of what happened to him—bayoneted and killed on a Korean hill late in the war—and the effect on his parents, and the irony of his being in Korea at all. The last two pages continue the history of Winesberg College, the small Ohio liberal arts school Marcus attended.

Marcus tell his own story: Growing up a good Jewish boy, son of a kosher butcher, in Newark, driven to leave his Newark college and home by his father's sudden and inexplicable terror that something will happen to his precious boy. Marcus is a straight-A student, is a non-practicing Jew (indeed, follows Bertrand Russell's atheism), is a virgin, and sees himself put-upon by his father, his roommate at Winesberg College, and by a well-meaning Dean of Students.

I found Marcus a young 19, stiff-necked, inflexible, self-justifying, with almost no insight into himself or other people. As a result I found myself regularly telling Marcus, "That's not a good idea...think of what you're doing...listen to what he/she is telling you." In fairness, Marcus himself realizes that there comes a point in his confrontations where he should shut his mouth—but he doesn't do it. He will not bend, and for his inflexibility, he ends up slaughtered pointlessly on a Korean hill.

But so what? I don't care. I suspect Marcus means a lot more to Philip Roth (who seems to share much of Marcus's early history) than to most readers, although you could probably say that about any writer's creations. The problem I find with the book is that, wonderfully well-written as it is (and it is), I am not moved in the least by Marcus and his struggle to find his way in the world.

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