Philip Roth excavates and reimagines his life the way Balzac channeled Paris, Dickens reproduced London, and, perhaps most aptly, Heinrich Schliemann dug up Troy—as if his now 75 years constituted a buried city of vast undepletable import and depth.
How should the reader react to his latest effort in that direction—“Indignation” (Houghton Mifflin, $26), a powerful short novel about a Jewish teen from Newark who, like the author in 1951, heads off to a classy Protestant liberal arts college?
One possibility is signaled by the unusual eight-sentence bio the book includes. Every sentence but the last lists literary prizes won by Roth. No other information, it appears, is relevant. It’s almost as if Roth expects the book to be waved right through from galley to literature, without the usual pit stop for threshold questions: Is this a good novel? Does the author have anything new to say?
Deciding that question requires keeping the book front and center, finding its place in Roth’s 29-book corpus, musing over how it further illuminates a territory Roth once described as “family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew.”
So, a short scorecard. As taut campus-novel narrative, “Indignation” is fast-paced, absorbing, disturbing. As probe into Roth’s view of his college self, it partly parallels earlier work. As moral tale, alas, it’s uncertain and confusing.
By now, enough scholars have documented the biographical sources of Roth’s fiction to make his complaints about that approach beside the point. The key question when another volume rumbles off the Roth assembly line is: What does he make of that aspect of his life?
The fact—as we learned from Roth’s mainly autobiographical “The Facts and Patrimony”—is that young Philip Roth, son of a Newark insurance man, followed a year of college at Rutgers/Newark by transferring to bucolic Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pa., where he founded a literary magazine and wrote short stories that almost completely effaced his Judaism. Later, the Army drafted him.
“Indignation,” by comparison, is largely the first-person tale of Marcus Messner, son of a Newark butcher, who, in 1951, after a year at Robert Treat College in Newark, heads off to Ohio’s Winesburg College (which began “as a Baptist seminary”), determined to do well and avoid being drafted into the Korean War.
Roth has mined his Bucknell years before, notably in “Salad Days,” one of the “useful fictions” that launch My Life as a Man. There, the shoestore-owning father of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s foremost alter ego, drives him to Bass, a Vermont college with weekly chapel.
Roth recalled Bucknell in “The Facts” as a place where “the bylaws stipulated that more than half the Board of Trustees had to be members of the Baptist Church, where chapel attendance was required of lower classmen. ...”
So, too, Winesburg maintains mandatory chapel attendance, which triggers harsh consequences for Marcus. Other resemblances mount. Marcus’s butcher father, toward the end of his life, has become too domineering toward his wife, in the manner we know (from “Patrimony”) that Roth’s father became for Roth’s mother. His officiousness with his son accounts for Marcus’ college switch, also a factor in Roth’s Bucknell move.
And, of course, a fellow first-year student, Olivia Hutton—beautiful and non-Jewish, a successor to the great shiksa-goddesses who’ve obsessed Roth since he transmogrified first wife Margaret Martinson Williams into characters in novels from “When She Was Good” to “Portnoy’s Complaint”—beguiles Marcus and draws him into the novel’s key scenes.
Did I mention that two of those scenes, between Marcus and Olivia, involve a particular part of Marcus and the part of Olivia that issues her smart-alecky, seemingly self-possessed remarks?
Sorry. You were expecting a “Chaim Potok” plot element? The ejaculation scenes—yes, scenes—confirm you can take the Portnoy out of the plot, but not the juvenile out of the would-be “Juvenal.” Once again in Roth, a good Jewish boy disproportionately strives to be someone a little (sexually) wilder, and cooler.
It would be amusing—we concede, Mr. Roth, it’s not critically imperative—to hear from Roth’s Bucknell contemporaries about how much of “Indignation” rings true in regard to a college Marcus denounces as “sanctimonious” and—well, take a look at Page 186.
But strip “Indignation” of its autobiographical resonances, and what is it? Any number of other titles might have captured this book more straightforwardly: “My Life as an Undergraduate,” “When He Was a Frosh,” “Pants Unbound.”
For sure, it’s riveting, despite the usual workmanlike Roth prose. His trademark passages on the umpteenth trade ascribed to Dad—here butchering and the eviscerating of chickens—precisely nail its nastiest aspects.
Philosophically, “Indignation” offers a counterlife to Robert Musil’s classic school novel, “Young Torless.” There, the title character remains indifferent to the cruelties of his proto-fascist classmates. Marcus, by contrast, seethes with contempt for his boorish peers and Winesburg’s backward theology. He simply wants to be left alone to get straight A’s.
Roth makes Marcus’ feverish scrutiny of himself, his family and his new campus uniformly energetic, even funny. But figuring out how we’re meant to respond to the book as a whole is not easy.
Marcus’ “intolerance” for people who “are not carbon copies” of him, and his “ardent atheist” iconoclasm, adopted from Bertrand Russell, backfires on him. Similarly, whenever things start working with Olivia, Marcus screws it up.
Yet the price Marcus suffers in the end can only be called arbitrary. If Roth means to suggest by “Indignation” that, as Marcus’s father warns, in life “the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences,” the point is taken, but so is Marcus’ rejoinder: “Oh, Christ, you sound like a fortune cookie.” Does Roth want us to disrespect Marcus’ independence of mind?
If, alternately, “Indignation” charges that the smug conservatism of 1950s educational institutions sent young men to their deaths—Roth has said Marcus moves in the book “from one overseer to another”—the story is comic-book logic pretending to tragedy. Marcus may not deserve what he gets, but it’s hard to pin the blame on anyone else.
Still, a third possibility looms. If “Indignation” signals an advance in Roth’s own grasp of the less appealing parts of a ruthlessly ambitious man’s personality—oppressive self-righteousness, impudence, recklessness—it registers here as progress.
Part way through “Indignation,” Marcus expresses exasperation, wondering, “(H)ow much more of my past can I take?”
He continues: “Retelling my own story to myself round the clock in a clockless world, lurking disembodied in this memory grotto, I feel as though I’ve been at it for a million years.”
That could be Roth’s truest sentence in decades.