Feb 07, 12
Read in November, 2009
** spoiler alert **
Philip Roth’s late blossoming continued with this, his thirty-ninth novel, his third in as many years. Indignation, unlike Everyman and Exit Ghost with their explorations of modern morality and ageing, is the story of a teenager, Marcus Messner, who leaves his father’s butchers in New Jersey to go study at a university at Winesburg College in Ohio. Like many of Roth’s previous novels, Messner’s maturation at university is mostly a sexual one and much of Roth’s trademark is here: the deconstruction of a blowjob in a car is wonderfully done.
The backdrop to Indignation is the 1950s, and in particular the Korean War which hovers in the background, the threat Messner faces if he does not succeed at university. Luckily Messner is a talented and knowledgeable student, but one whom in attempting to escape his Jewish roots becomes entangled in the fundamentalist Christian mores of Ohio: can Messner survive in a place whose doctrines he does not share?
Much of Indignation can be read as a subversion of the film genre of frat movies: the students undertake a ‘panty raid’ of the female dorms; there is the uptight dean, a riot and lots of ejaculation. If Roth weren’t the foremost novelist in America today, giving the synopsis one might imagine him writing screenplays for the American Pie film series. This reading is only an incidental one: Roth has much more erudite fish to fry. In a lengthy sequence Messner, challenging the Dean, quotes from Bertrand Russell’s infamous essay ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’, and it is this doctrinal fight that reverberates throughout Indignation. Messner is choosing not to be certain things based upon his reading, and even his choosing of Olivia Hutton, the suicidal practitioner of fellatio with whom he becomes enamoured, is based more upon the effect it will have rather than any true feeling. Messner seems to want to rebel (much as many teenagers did in the 1950s), and like the famous cinematic rebel, he is without a cause.
This, though, is not just a novel about teenage life in the 1950s. At times Roth’s true intent is subtle; it worms away under the frat house antics, seeps into your subconscious – and it is only when the Dean gives a final rallying call to his students does it all become clear:
“Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear. Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily—warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all. Well, you won’t be oblivious for long! You can be as stupid as you like, can even give every sign, as you did here on Friday night, of passionately wanting to be stupid, but history will catch you in the end. Because history is not the background—history is the stage! And you are on the stage! Oh, how sickening is your appalling ignorance of your own times! Most sickening of all is that it is just that ignorance that you are purportedly at Winesburg to expunge. What kind of a time do you think you belong to, anyway? Can you answer? Do you know? Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all?”
Indignation is a novel about today as well as the past; Roth, after all, is on his familiar terrain. When, in a final sudden moment, we learn Marcus Messner’s fate, we learn how transitory life is, how we cannot take all that we have for granted, how we should rise with indignation and fight. Roth is a writer with a cause, and we should be grateful he still writes.