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Philip Roth's Indignation: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review

(Houghton Mifflin)


Thursday, September 18, 2008

By Philip Roth
(Houghton Mifflin)

Reviewed by Molly Young

Has Philip Roth been spending time on the Animal House couch? His 29th novel, which takes place mostly at a tranquil Midwestern college, includes several key elements of classic campus satires:

1) a panty raid

2) a malevolent dean

3) a riot scene

4) projectile ejaculating

Knowing these four ingredients and the name of the author, you’d likely conjure a work much racier than Indignation, which begins in autumn of 1950, two and a half months after the onset of the Korean War. Marcus Messner is a well-behaved boy from Newark: he’s on the debate team, he plays the infield, he earns A’s, he works at his father’s butcher shop pulling the viscera out of chicken asses. “Nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done,” he says of the job. “That’s what I learned from my father and what I loved learning: that you do what you have to do.”

It’s a golden lesson, and Marcus Messner loves lessons. Things go well for him until his father unexpectedly begins to crack up after Marcus enrolls at a local college. He doesn’t go nuts so much as he becomes hysterical with the fear that his son will die. It’s an all-enveloping fear and not an irrational one; this is a time, after all, when most Americans knew people who died in the Second World War. Convinced that “the tiniest step can have tragic consequences,” the elder Messner dogs his son to the brink of a meltdown, prompting Marcus to flee his father’s protectiveness by heading west.

His destination is Winesburg, a “small liberal arts and engineering college in the farm country of north-central Ohio.” Though this is not typical Roth territory, the author doesn’t fetishize the school: Elms are elms, deans are deans, frats are frats. Here we find Roth in non-behemoth mode, the writer of Everyman rather than American Pastoral. The sentences are shorter, and there is little rhetorical sweep, little that aspires to grandness. We learn early in the novel that Marcus dies at age nineteen in the Korean War — that he is, in fact, recounting his life from beyond the grave — and it is as though Roth has aimed to produce a muted little tragedy in keeping with the brevity of his narrator’s life. His Marcus is a boy who reads the newspaper obsessively because of the likelihood that he’ll be drafted; who obeys his mother’s every command; who memorizes Bertrand Russell. He is the kind of young man who doesn’t exist in present-day America, and we are meant to mourn the loss of his type.

Roth chooses a specific historical moment for the education of young Marcus, one when moral supremacy was not only a concern of the nation but of the individual as well. While the country fought communism and North Korea, its young men fought the influence of promiscuous girls and poor study habits. A certain seriousness was required of boys like Marcus, and yet he, despite his gravity, is an innocent. Confronted with the possibility of his parents’ divorce, Marcus finds himself (and not for the first time) a “tiny creature who is nothing but its need of perpetual nurture.” Indignation can be read as a coming-of-age tale, but it’s as much a narrative of vulnerability as of maturation.

Roth’s scenes and characters make more sense in light of this point: the egg-like insularity of Winesburg, Marcus’ fragile love interest (a suicidal enchantress named Olivia Hutton), and the narrator’s retrospective account of his “nineteen little years” from a place somewhere between life’s end and annihilation. The move is inward, from coastal Newark into the heartland, and into the self.

If Roth is attending here to the topic of vulnerability, his prose has adjusted itself to the theme. The result is an uncharacteristically tame novel, with a shyness of prose and, occasionally, an odd mawkishness. Roth usually excels at pinning down universal experiences with language sharp enough to make them new. Like most of his novels, Indignation reads well and quickly without being the kind of book that you’d necessarily want to pick up again. Usually this is a sign of Roth’s prescience, of the fact that each of his novels seems to arrive at exactly the right historical moment. With Indignation, it derives also from the slightness of the book. The novel itself (and its prose and length) does not measure up to its intended tragedy. Roth can do short and piercing well, but Indignation is short and insufficient, and it fails to trouble us as it wants to.


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