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 then I prolonged 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 has transferred 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 demonstrate 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.