BY PHILIP ROTH JONATHAN CAPE, £16.99
Philip Roth is a writer who has been obsessed of late with both mortality and immortality. On the one hand, the 75-year-old’s recent protagonists have been men in the last stages of their lives; racked by guilt, nostalgia and hypochondria, meditating on life’s brevity and injustice But Roth, the author, is also seemingly obsessed with his own immortality, pumping out novels at the rate of one a year.
Indignation, though short at 126 pages, nonetheless has the impact and gravitas of most writers’ longer works. Set during the Korean War, the narrative follows Newark resident Marcus Messner through his young adulthood and college years to his untimely death.
Messner is, at first sight, a typical Roth creation. Born in Newark (echoing the author’s own roots), the son of a Kosher butcher, he is bright, studious and intelligent. When we first meet him he is attending a local college, acting out the role of dutiful son and student.
With the Korean war looming over everyone, Messner’s father becomes convinced his son is going to die. He won’t let him out at night. He becomes overly possessive and neurotic. Messner transfers to Winseburg, Ohio, to get away from his father’s obsessive clutches. Winseburg is a small, WASP-ish college in America’s heartland, as far away from the slum-ridden downtown Newark of Messner’s childhood as can be. What could have been a sentimental fantasy of college life written by an old man turns into a nightmare of destiny and history care of Roth’s effortless prose, as cold and precise as a scalpel cutting through the layers of repression and self-denial which cloaked adolescence in the Fifties.
Within 50 pages, we learn that Messner is dead and narrating this story from a kind of purgatory where he has to relive his memories day after day for eternity and one cannot help but wonder if this is Roth’s vision of the writer’s life. Messner, a serious student, fails to adapt to the cheerful bonhomie of Winseburg. He has fights with his roommates over their music. He falls in love with a beautiful but possibly schizophrenic girl. He refuses to go to mandatory chapel attendance. He chafes at any kind of authority or anyone telling him what to do.
Under the skin of the perfect son and the perfect student lies a bubbling underworld of rage and indignation.
With consummate skill and refinement, Roth traces how the tiniest decisions, acts which seem insignificant at the time, can have horrifying consequences. It is a measure of the author’s talent that this book feels slight until you reach the end and then you realise how Roth has been leading you all along to the shocking dénouement.
He’s not so much interested here in the effects of the political on the personal but rather how small, insignificant acts, almost imperceptible at the time, can set off a chain of events that will end in tragedy and death.
With Indignation Roth has created a genuinely startling and shocking novel. Despite its title the book is not angry but rather elegiac and bitter-sweet. Philip Roth may have moved away from writing about old men, but death is still there lurking in every shadow.