Philip Roth must have emerged indignant from the womb, so fiery has been the burning thread of fury glowing through the heart of his oeuvre: Class resentment appears early in his debut, Goodbye Columbus. By the time Portnoy’s Complaint rolls raucously into town, this has transformed into something considerably deeper and rawer: “What I’m saying, Doctor, is that I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds…” Nathan Zuckerman expressed resentment at the demands of celebrity. Revulsion against puritan politics informs the celebrated American Trilogy, and in his final act, confronted with mortality and clash between Eros and Thanatos, Roth now rages against the dying of the light.
Having now published his 29th book at the age of 75, his capacity for righteous indignation has not dimmed but the old sharpness has dulled, leaving readers with little more than echoes of stronger works. How strong are these echoes? Indignation is filled with familiar Roth tropes: Newark, a confrontation of 1950s mores, a studious young Jewish son of well-meaning if interfering parents; a beautiful, promiscuous, damaged shiksa. An obsession with sex and with death.
If that doesn’t give you enough of a sense of “been there, seen that,” Portnoy’s Complaint and Indignation both include, nearly verbatim, Roth’s grade-school memories of what his teachers called “The Chinese National Anthem.” From Portnoy: “And then my favorite line, commencing as it does with my favorite word in the English language: ‘In-dig-na-tion fills the hearts of all of our coun-try-men! A-rise! A-rise! A-RISE!’ ” Now this, from Indignation, when its young protagonist, Marcus Messner, is forced to attend Christian religious services at his rural Ohio college: “I inwardly sang out the most beautiful word in the English language: ‘In-dig-na-tion!’ ”
An uncharitable interpretation would suggest that Roth is either unaware he’s repeating himself or doesn’t mind (or care). He has, after all, given his normally recursive tendencies an unfettered hand in his last few books: From the conclusion of the Zuckerman saga in Exit Ghost to the conclusion of the saga of the body in Everyman to the mining, once again, of his childhood in The Plot Against America, Roth has scarcely stepped away from himself. But perhaps the counterfactual structure of The Plot Against America suggests a more charitable reading of Indignation as something of an anti-history itself. The self-righteous, unyielding Marcus Messner can stand in for any number of earlier Roth heroes, and perhaps Indignation — the song will have a chilling relevance for Marcus — is meant to be read as a consideration of what might have happened had Portnoy or Zuckerman or Sabbath (or Roth) not had their hour upon the stage. This seems in keeping with Indignation‘s stated theme, adumbrated in The Plot Against America: namely the great reverberations of seemingly insignificant choices. Roth, it seems, has discovered chaos theory, but, having done so, delivers a disappointingly heavy-handed treatment of his material.
When we join Marcus in June 1950, he has just entered Newark’s Robert Treat college, where, like many of his Rothian predecessors, he is “the first member of our family to seek a higher education.” Prior to that, he has worked beside his father the butcher, learning his portentously blood-soaked trade. The Korean War, with its bayonet-wielding Chinese, is in full swing, and the associations are neither subtle nor especially artful. Marcus has learned a life lesson from his father, as he goes about the unpleasant business of eviscerating chickens: “That’s what I learned from my father and what I loved learning from him: that you do what you have to do.” It is one of this slender novel’s several obvious ironies that Marcus’s misreading of this advice will lead to trouble.
For reasons Roth never makes sufficiently clear, Marcus’s father abruptly descends into a state of considerable paranoia and becomes absolutely convinced that some terrible harm is going to befall his straight-A son. His father becomes so unbearably controlling that Marcus feels he has no choice but to quit Newark in order to put distance between the two. The Elder Messner’s breakdown serves to move the narrative to its next fraught step, but it’s one of Indignation‘s great failings that this business is both convenient and unconvincing.
Marcus finds himself at Winesburg, “a small liberal arts and engineering college in the farm country of north-central Ohio” that he selects on the basis of a brochure cover, though it’s never made clear how Marcus persuades his father — who insists on knowing his whereabouts at every moment — to consent to such a move. But Roth is more concerned, with an obvious nod to Sherwood Anderson, with delivering Marcus into his own “Book of the Grotesque,” where Roth’s notion that the most dangerous places are those that seem most innocent will be played out time and time again.
Marcus’s semester at Winesburg does not go well. His rigidity brings him into conflict after conflict, first with a variety of roommates, then with Olivia, whose sexual liberty he is unable to comprehend, and finally with campus authorities. Amid all this, the threat of the Korean War hangs over him and, despite his mistaken assessment of himself — “I had a great talent for being satisfied” — he continually frets that each new misadventure will see him expelled and sent to Korea. In altercation after altercation, Marcus is convinced he is doing what he must (as he learned from his father), but his obdurate righteousness is taken for rebellious insolence.
Although the book’s action climaxes with a “panty raid,” an eruption of student tomfoolery that blows up out of control and results in the death of student — another meticulous, deliberate student who makes one foolish choice (in case the point isn’t yet clear) — the book’s centerpiece is Marcus’s histrionic defense of his on-campus actions to the dean of men, which draws liberally from Bertrand Russell’s celebrated 1927 lecture, “Why I Am Not a Christian.” The counterpoint to this interview occurs in the book’s final pages, when the university president, disgusted with the behavior of his students during such serious times, delivers a lecture of his own, averring that “History will catch you in the end.”
However pressing either of these arguments might be to the author, Indignation rarely feels like more than a vehicle for a device. Between sex and death and fate and chaos and honor and belief, Roth seems to be packing too much on too slender a frame, underscoring the obvious for page after page, right up to the valedictory closing line:
…the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve this disproportionate result.
Indignation is, simultaneously, an unnecessarily repetitive explication of that simple idea, and one that doesn’t go nearly deeply enough to satisfy.