Monday, October 20, 2008


Philip Roth, Indignation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008). 231 pp. $26.00.

Indignation is a new venture for
the only living novelist represented in the Library of America. After closing up the Zuckerman franchise with last year’s Exit Ghost, the 75-year-old Roth decided that he must introduce an entirely new character to his gallery of Jewish males who are neither believing Jews nor scholarly Jews nor Jewish xenophobes who can’t bear the proximity of goyim.

Marcus Messner is just a college student with an overbearing father. The year is 1951, and with the Korean War entering its second year (“U.S. casualties already totaled more than one hundred thousand”), the elder Messner becomes consumed with fear that his only son will die. To get away from him, Marcus flees his native Newark for Winesburg, “a small liberal arts and engineering college in the farm country of north-central Ohio. . . .” The allusion to Sherwood Anderson is key. Indignation is Roth’s “Book of the Grotesque.” As Anderson put it in the preface to Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a person becomes a grotesque
the moment he takes a truth to himself, calls it his truth, and tries to live by it, turning it into a falsehood.

For Marcus Messner, that moment occurs when he declares his opposition to compulsory chapel at Winesburg. “I objected,” he says, “not because I was an observant Jew but because I was an ardent atheist.” To make it through a sermon on “How to Take Stock of Ourselves in the Light of Biblical Teachings,” he hums to himself the patriotic songs that he had learned in grade school, including “what we were told was the national anthem of our Chinese allies in the war begun by the Japanese” and the source of the book’s title:

Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!
With our very flesh and blood
We will build a new Great Wall!
China's masses have met the day of danger.
Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen,
Arise! Arise! Arise!
Marcus takes indignation as his truth. Summoned to the dean-of-men’s office to explain himself, he finds himself starting to sing within: “Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!” The dean asks what is going on. Still in his first semester at Winesburg, Marcus has already moved out of two different dormitory rooms after quarrels with roommates. “I found myself living with someone whose conduct I considered intolerable,” Marcus explains. “Tolerance appears to be something of a problem for you, young man,” the dean replies. Marcus protests that no one has ever said that about him before, but inwardly he “sang out the most beautiful word in the English language: ‘In-dig-na-tion!’ ”

Three decades ago, Roth took the proper measure of indignation. In My Life As a Man (1974), a young Nathan Zuckerman—making his first appearance in Roth’s fiction—seethes with indignation at a brush with antisemitism in the U.S. Army, knowing all the while that indignation is not “the same as running with blood. Nor is it what is meant in literature, or even in life for that matter, by suffering or pain.”

His twenty-fifth novel is a dilation of that earlier insight. Marcus’s sufferings are punier even than the same-aged Nathan’s. His interview with the dean of men works the nineteen-year-old into such a lather that Marcus delivers a long-winded paraphrase of Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” to establish his ardent atheism. The “aloofly intimidating” girl he pursues, who astonishes him on their first date in a borrowed car, turns out to be “the Blowjob Queen of 1951.” A disappointed homosexual admirer soils his dorm room while he is in the hospital with a burst appendix. After he dumps her upon his mother
’s request, the Blowjob Queen has a nervous breakdown and leaves school; the dean of men accuses him of impregnating her, and in a final burst of indignation (“I would not be condemned on no evidence. I was sick of that from everyone”), Marcus tells the dean to get fucked.

Thus does the grotesqueness of his truth guarantee the fulfillment of
Marcus’s greatest fear. He is expelled from Winesburg and ends up a rifleman in Korea. And this leads to the strangest quality of Indignation. Namely: it is narrated from the grave. Not quite a fourth of the way through the novel you learn that Marcus has been killed in Korea, although he is still speaking in the first person, and has been for he doesn’t know how long.

It is not immediately clear what Roth hopes to achieve by means of this fiction. He is hardly the first to try it. In Jim Thompson’s Killer Inside Me (1952), Sheriff Lou Ford narrates his own shooting death. And there are probably earlier examples. Roth doesn’t do much with the device beyond offering some rather inconclusive conclusions:Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae? Who could have imagined that one would have forever to remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component? Or can it be that this is merely the afterlife that is mine, and as each life is unique, so too is each afterlife, each an imperishable fingerprint of an afterlife unlike anyone else’s? I have no means of telling. As in life, I know only what is, and in death what is turns out to be what was. You are not just shackled to your life while living it, you continue to be stuck with it after you’re gone.Or are these merely late-in-the-day reflections on the art of fiction? Where else, after all, are there permanent records of lives down to their tiniest components?

The difference is that, unlike life, in fiction—especially in Roth’s fiction—you are not shackled to your own life. Although Roth’s fiction has been criticized as solipsistic, it is anything but. While characters like Marcus Messner may be solipsistic, Roth’s fiction provides a “means of telling” about the inner reality, the “imperishable fingerprint,” of other people’s lives. Indignation shows how one young man’s self-importance renders him grotesque, and gets him killed. That the rest of us might pity him, and might even fear the twisting of indignation in our own lives, is an overcoming of solipsism, no matter how short-lived.