Review: Indignation

By Bryan Cheyette, September 19, 2008

By Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape, £16.99

Reading Philip Roth's late fiction is a bit like seeing Woody Allen's recent films. Both contain echoes of past greatness and offer a new perspective, tempered with age and maturity, on recognisable lives long since transmuted into art.

There is even a Woody Allen joke in the new novel, Indignation, Roth's 25th. Its 19-year-old protagonist, Marcus Messner, is working his way through college as a waiter and is convinced that he hears people call out: "Hey, Jew! Over here!" rather than "Hey, you!".

Not that Marcus's paranoia is unjustified. He decides to attend Winesburg College - founded by the Baptist Church - in the farm country of central Ohio, after a year in a college close to his Newark home.

This is 1951, and the contrast between the conformist Winesburg (where chapel attendance is compulsory) and his shambolic "Irish-Italian-German-Slavic-Jewish-Negro" Newark could not be starker.

Marcus moves from the comforts of home to the alien mid-west in response to his over-protective father who drives him crazy by continually anticipating "tragic consequences" from the "tiniest misstep" his son might make.

In The Plot Against America (2004), the father-figure goes to pieces after the election of a Fascist American government. Here, there is no explanation why Marcus's father, a kosher butcher, should have a "million worries". But his dramatic change in character drives his son away and forces his long-suffering wife to contemplate divorce.

And yet the father's paranoia, like the son's, does have some basis. Indignation has as its backdrop the brutal, Korean War of 1950-53, which took the lives of tens of thousands of young American soldiers. If Marcus didn't attend college, he would surely be drafted like his two cousins who had already been killed in the war.

Roth has often spoken of the conflict between appetite and renunciation (or the "Jewboy" and the "Nice Jewish Boy") and this time-honoured theme is writ large in Indignation.

Marcus turns out to have all-Jewish roommates (even though Winesburg College has less than one per cent Jewish intake). One of them, Bertram Flusser, a homosexual, turns out to have "an abundance of rebuke". On the other hand, Sonny Cottler, the president of the Jewish fraternity house, is the epitome of niceness.

Marcus rejects both reality instructors and, instead, finds himself obsessed with Olivia Hutton, a suicidal daughter of divorced parents from wealthy, suburban Cleveland.

Marcus is in "bondage" to Olivia's sense of victimisation ("the sanitarium, the frailty, the fortitude") which echoes Roth's autobiographical account of why he married a half-crazed "girl of my dreams".

His dream-shikse, the antisemitism of the college dean, and the sexual repression of the 1950s (which produces "blue balls"!), are all well-worn preoccupations. But the new novel differs from Roth's earlier work by locating these issues in a wider context of historical suffering. The final and best speech of the novel, by the college president - "beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire" - underlines the link between "warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter" and these trivial lives.

Unlike the film-maker, the novelist has a bottom drawer full of unpublished manuscripts. Indignation was almost certainly first drafted many moons ago but it is none the worse for that. Roth, like Marcus, belongs to the "realm of eternal recollection". Long may he recollect, but never in tranquillity.

Bryan Cheyette is professor of modern literature at the University of Reading

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011