Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Indignation by Philip Roth

Between 1997's "American Pastoral" and 2005's "The Plot Against America" Philip Roth wrote a series of late novels that seem without rival, not just during that time period, but in the previous twenty or thirty years. Since then, his books have been shorter, but no less frequent, yet if I'd not lost interest, I'd certainly lost track. Short novels about mortality didn't really appeal as much as the majestic long novels about morality that had preceded them.

Which brings me to "Indignation." And what a strange little book it is. Settled in that fictional history of post-war 20th century America that Roth somehow makes his own, it tells the story of a Jewish New York student who, escaping from the strictures of his kosher butcher father, skips to the equally restricted environs of rural Ohio, namely a town called Winesburg. There is a real Winesburg, but surely this is a nod to Sherwood Anderson's smalltown masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio? A strangely distracting choice - but deliberate. For here is a community whose college is only Liberal on the surface; go deeper in and its a highly conservative institution. The protagonist, Marcus Messner, is roomed with 3 other Jews because of his name alone; and everyone is meant to attend church 40 times during their time at college, a "loyalty" card checking they have been doing so.

But Messner, our narrator, is not as he seems. It reminds me a little of that earlier great novella "The Ghost Writer", in its teasing use of the past to tell a moral fable, a teasing taster of a book, rather than a main course. Messner's life is tinged with death from the start. It has the backdrop of that forgotten conflict, the Korean war, somehow ignored when compared with World War II or Vietnam, and yet equally as careless with young American lives. He is brought up by a kosher butcher, and his earliest memories are of blood. He has run away from a restricted Jewish urban life, and finds himself in an equally restricted one. His fear of being drafted is what spurs him on in his actions, but he is an innocent abroad, a cipher on which Roth can splash a little bit of history's blood.

Yet, it is a strange novel. Messner's life is splattered, not with blood, but with sperm. The Roth of Portnoy is revisited in adolescence over-emphasis on that different bodily fluid. Women are all but absent, except as blow job perpetrator (his first girlfriend - who turns out, guess what, to be "mental" and then disappears despite there being a hinted-at backstory that it his her diabolical parents who have caused the dysfunction) or mother. Roth's reliance on the whore/virgin option is crass; and the novel is crass in other ways as well. Our narrator is not unsympathetic, but he is certainly un-empathetic, you hardly caring about his self-sort isolation. The story he tells is both self-involved and desperate - the key philosophical point being that small decisions, can have big consequences. Yet this feels contrived. Messner is a self-destructive narcissist, too clever for his own good, yet a messy contributor to his own demise. He senses danger and runs. His "indignation" a classic, but slightly unfathomable, character flaw.

As our (unreliable) narrator he feels like some kind of cipher - which Roth's best characters never are - a player in a mid-west Mystery play of sort. Other characters: the psycho girlfriend, the hypocrit Principal, the over-theatrical gay Jew, the fraternity paragon, are equally stock characters - and at the end of what is a wilful, distressing, intrigueing, and somewhat prescriptive novella you realise that Roth has written a 20th century Mummer's play, it's backdrop Korea, it's chorus, a hardly audible Hebrew.

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