"Indignation", by Philip Roth, Houghton-Mifflin Co., New York 2008.
Reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg.
All the old ingredients are here: the dolorous adolescence of an intelligent Jewish boy brought up in or near New York City, the fraught, fateful relation between the boy and his parents, the repressive environment of American colleges in the forties and fifties, the ever-present temptation embodied in sexy goyishe girls, the butcher—kosher—and the gore inherent in the processing and marketing of meats and poultry. They are all here, plus a garnish of battle scenes from the Korean War, as if recovered from the freezer and left to thaw for a couple of days, then stewed and served in some new, inventive way. Roth’s a master cook and, as we know, a subtle story teller.
The set speeches in this novel are, in my opinion, its highest points. First Marcus Messner, the teen-aged protagonist, preaches on his and Bertrand Russell’s opinions about Christianity to a tradition-crusted Dean. That has great dramatic force. Then, near the end, Albin Lentz, a “moderate” Republican politico and the President of Winesburg College, gives the gathered student body a rough piece of his mind. In his speech, when the strict separation of the sexes prevalent at the time is brought into rhetorical proximity to the fear of total atomic annihilation equally prevalent at the time, sparks fly and Roth comes close to an interesting psychological insight. The dialogue, while not quite at the same level, is scrupulously polished and true to character.
One could find fault in the device of having a narrator, Marcus Messner, who is dead, killed in the Korean War, and is telling his story from the beyond. Not so much because the device is unrealistic, but because the reader might object that if, as Marcus says, his time in the beyond is passed scrutinizing all that transpired during his life and telling us about it, then there is no strong reason to mourn his passing, or to feel much indignation at a life cut short by the perversity of our society in peace as well as war. Marcus’ beyond looks like a writer’s paradise, so the indignation of the title has no raison d’être and no grip on us. This objection, however, is superficial and overlooks the fact that most readers are willing to feel great indignation with reason or without it, or rather, that they come to the book with their own reasons for outrage. Keep in mind that for the last eight years if not more, that is, since the start of this millennium, indignation has been the most easily justifiable of the passions.
A more serious criticism should be leveled at the narrator’s voice. Marcus Messner has the annoying habit of emphasizing by repetition those incidents or turns of phrase which he knows will have great effect. Eviscerating chickens is a case in point. Messner & Roth are aware that the vast majority of readers have never seen a chicken being killed, plucked, gutted and cleaned, far less participated in such processes, which were so unremarkable some years back into the previous millennium. And so it is that chicken innards and anuses are evoked and stressed over and over. I felt tired of repetitiousness and of the abuse of anaphora—so many successive clauses beginning with the same words—when I chanced on the following paragraph, occurring just after Marcus’ mother tells him she wants to divorce her husband, Marcus’ father, and describing the narrator’s reaction:
“Growing up, I’d never known of a single household among my friends or my schoolmates or our family’s friends where the parents were divorced or were drunks or, for that matter, owned a dog.”
I said to myself, this is superb: such a simple, virtuoso way of describing, with just one brushstroke in a different hue, the customs of those hard working, modest but well-established Jewish families of seventy years ago! Oy weh, I kept reading, and my admiration turned into annoyance at the remainder of the paragraph:
“I was raised to think all three repugnant. My mother could have stunned me more only if she’d told me she’d gone out and bought a Great Dane.”
Is Roth afraid that his readers will not get the joke? It may be that indignation naturally plays fortissimo, sforzando every note, but such playing, even though it brings rounds of prizes and applause, cannot be considered great literature.
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