I try to give a book at least 50 pages before I cut my literary losses and discard it, but with Philip Roth’s Indignation, I slogged on to the predictable end.  And now I am prolonging my irritation by trying to articulate why I disliked this book so much.  Why?  Because the author is Philip Roth and this book was my introduction to his body of work.  Perhaps my expectations were too high.  Perhaps my tolerance for the ridiculous is too low (showering semen?).  Perhaps I chose the wrong Roth novel.


The story is told from the first-person perspective of Marcus Messmer, the only son of a Jewish butcher.  In the first part of the book, the portrayal of the loving relationship between Marcus and his father, and Marcus’ memories of his years working beside his father in the butcher shop are vivid and moving.  Marcus is a good son and a gifted scholar, but as he becomes more independent, his father develops irrational fears about Marcus’ future and tensions between his parents escalate.  To distance himself from his family, Marcus transfers from his local college in Newark, New Jersey to conservative Winesburg College in Ohio.

It is the 2nd year of the Korean War and American casualties are high.  The Korean War was the first time that conscription could be deferred for a college student.  “To qualify as an officer and to enter the army as a second lieutenant for a two-year stint in the Transportation Corps after graduation, a student had to take no fewer than four semesters of ROTC.”  Marcus signs up.  Further, every Winesburg student is required to attend chapel “between the hours of eleven and noon on Wednesdays, 40 times before he or she graduated” – Christian sermons, Christian hymns and prayer, held in a Methodist church, no exceptions.  Marcus attends chapel.  One night, studying in the library, he sees beautiful, blond-haired Olivia and falls instantly in lust.

So far so good.

Then, four pages past my 50-page test, out of nowhere, in the middle of an interminable, tiresomely detailed account of an improbable first-date act of fellatio, Roth throws out the following:

“And even dead, as I am and have been for I don’t know how long . . .”

Wait – What? Marcus is dead?

Roth continues with:

“Even now (if ‘now’ can be said to mean anything any longer), beyond corporeal existence, alive as I am here (if ‘here’ or ‘I’ means anything) as memory alone (if ‘memory,’strictly speaking, is the all-embracing medium of which I am being sustained as ‘myself’) I continue to puzzle over Olivia’s actions.  Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae?”

And it went on for three more pages, mucking over the minutiae of his memory being alive while he is dead in every other way.  But by now, I no longer cared about Marcus, anyone else in this story, or the story itself.  Roth had derailed me completely.

I plowed on, but my irritation only grew.  Other than the narrator Marcus, the characters in Indignation were flat.  All we knew about Olivia was that she was from a good family, seemed intelligent, and was the campus’ indiscriminate dispenser of blow-jobs (remember, the book is set in the early 1950’s).  There were scars on her wrists from an attempted suicide, hints of an estranged relationship with her father, but little else.  I would like to have known more about Olivia.

None of the characters really talked to each other – for the most part, their conversations were contrived declamations.  In a scene that takes place in the Dean’s office, where Marcus grows combative and indignant at the Dean’s intrusive questions, Roth has Marcus recite verbatim sections of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.”  Please.  An allusion would have sufficed, although again, I thought the entire scene was not plausible for the time, the place, the two characters, and their circumstances.  Marcus tells us early on that “he wanted to do everything right” – keep his head down, continue to earn straight A’s, avoid the draft as long he could, and “prove to his father that he had made the right decision to move to Winesburg.”  Indignation would have been a dangerous self-indulgence.  And so it proved to be.

I know Roth is widely admired. There are passages in Indignation that evidence his ability.  But those passages are not nearly enough to save this novel from its absurdity. Too often, I found myself rolling my eyes and throwing the book down.  It did not move me or connect with me in any way.  It did not seem real, and by real I mean plausible.  I just did not believe this book.

Luckily, it was a library loan.

3 thoughts on “Indignation”

  1. Linda:

    I would have stopped reading the book once you found it oppressive. Then you wouldn’t have to struggle to blog about it. Yes, you may have read the wrong Roth book. His The Plot Against America is particularly timely.

    I read Indignation and wrote a very brief blog about it. I wrote, “As usual Roth writes forcefully, energetically and makes this rather mundane and oft repeated tale, far more than interesting. However, it took me a while to figure out what he was getting at. It was only when I reviewed the passages I made note of that the theme of Indignation made itself known to me.

    The majority in my collection revealed that once again Roth is confronting the never ending battle between feelings and conscience, between doing what you’d like and doing what is right, between what in olden times used to be called the id and the superego. These are battles that are not confined to the young. How often have I confronted this conflict! How often everyone has and that surely includes the aging but no less vigorous Philip Roth.”

    It is good to see you back in the Blogosphere! Keep them coming.


  2. Sorry for delay in responding – my laptop crashed over the weekend. Had to buy new computer and get it set up – lots of hassle and hours of irritation. But I’m back to normal now.

    Yes, I usually set a book aside when it’s not working for me. Occasionally I will give the book and myself a few years, then try it again and sometimes we connect.

    But with Indignation, I just needed to get my reaction off my chest. I know I’m an outlier on this one, so I just wanted to work through it in a post, which always forces me to question my opinions.

    I will look up your blog on Indignation. Roth is certainly vigorous!


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