Philip Roth revives old themes in 'Indignation'

September 15, 2008 11:36:36 AM PDT
If you are at all familiar with any of Philip Roth's previous 28 books, you won't be surprised by his 29th, "Indignation."

It's about a young man with overbearing parents growing up in the Jewish section of Newark, N.J. He dashes off to college in Ohio, where he learns about sex and frustration, repressive social norms and his own insistent, sexual desire.

We have been here before with Roth, most notably in his first book, "Goodbye, Columbus" in 1959, and again in the scandalous "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1969.

But returning to Newark and the well-worn themes of his early work doesn't suggest repetition or an exhausted imagination. It's a sign that Roth knows he has found his best material, the subjects that allow him to ask the most important questions about sex and dying and being human. (Other great writers have spent entire careers on a single subject, right? And nobody complains that Jane Austen wrote too many books about marriage among the landed gentry.)

Roth's earlier books were written in the moment, as it were, of the sexual revolution. But "Indignation" comes to us as historical fiction. It recreates a time in American history, 1951, that's hard to imagine now, when college students were mostly celibate and required to attend chapel, men were not allowed in the women's dorm and college administrators acted like strict parents.

The main character, Marcus Messner, worries legitimately that if he is caught having sex, he could be expelled from college, face the military draft and be sent to Korea, where he could die in the trenches of a far-off war. "It's about life," says his worried father, "where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences."

"Indignation" begins with vivid scenes of Marcus working in his father's kosher butcher shop in Newark, cutting up steaks, grinding meat, gutting chickens and mopping up blood. It's a brief, well-crafted moment, but the images of knives, blood and death infuse the rest of the book.

Marcus runs off to college because his father has become obsessively worried that his son will do something stupid and get himself killed. It's ludicrous to Marcus because thus far he has been nothing but "a prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student."

But he never fits in at conservative Winesburg College. He buys the buckskin shoes and the tweed jacket, but he hates the "constricting rectitude" of the place. He's constantly befuddled by his starchy professors, his annoying roommates and the self-righteous dean of students. And more than anything, he can't for the life of him figure out why a pretty girl named Olivia Hutton would willingly perform oral sex on him.

Roth makes it clear early - so it's not a spoiler to reveal - that Marcus, our narrator, believes himself to be dead. But this isn't the standard "dead narrator" trick, like in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," where the dead realize how we never appreciate life's small, beautiful details while we're alive.

No. In Roth's "afterlife," Marcus is alone and cursed to replay his short 19 years over and over in his mind, judging his own actions but never being able to figure out the meaning of it all. Recollection without resolution.

Death hangs over the entire novel, the surprise of it, the precariousness of just being alive and "the terrible, the incomprehensible way one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result." What makes "Indignation" work is how Roth balances the darkness with sharp, comic irony.

It's not a long novel, but Roth makes everything snap together, almost like a great short story. The brief final section - just a few pages long - masterfully sews together all the images and themes of the book. Far from being repetitive, in "Indignation" Roth has reached back to Newark to breathe new life into all the old obsessions.