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Indignationby Philip Roth
"Before he decided to dispense entirely with the respect of his readership — which must have been, oh, some years ago now — Philip Roth used to try to balance the quotidian with a larger theme. In novels like I Married a Communist and The Plot Against America, he sought to mesh the "micro" — most usually the familiar world of Jewish angst in New Jersey — with the "macro": the successive spasms of alarm and disorder that have punctuated modern American history....In Indignation, he varies the procedure a little." Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
Against the backdrop of the Korean War, a young man faces life's unimagined chances and terrifying consequences.
It is 1951 in America, the second year of the Korean War. A studious, law-abiding, intense youngster from Newark, New Jersey, Marcus Messner, is beginning his sophomore year on the pastoral, conservative campus of Ohio's Winesburg College. And why is he there and not at the local college in Newark where he originally enrolled? Because his father, the sturdy, hard-working neighborhood butcher, seems to have gone mad — mad with fear and apprehension of the dangers of adult life, the dangers of the world, the dangers he sees in every corner for his beloved boy.
As the long-suffering, desperately harassed mother tells her son, the father's fear arises from love and pride. Perhaps, but it produces too much anger in Marcus for him to endure living with his parents any longer. He leaves them and, far from Newark, in the midwestern college, has to find his way amid the customs and constrictions of another American world.
Indignation, Philip Roth's twenty-ninth book, is a story of inexperience, foolishness, intellectual resistance, sexual discovery, courage, and error. It is a story told with all the inventive energy and wit Roth has at his command, at once a startling departure from the haunted narratives of old age and experience in his recent books and a powerful addition to his investigations of the impact of American history on the life of the vulnerable individual.
"Roth's brilliant and disconcerting new novel plumbs the depths of the early Cold War-era male libido, burdened as it is with sexual myths and a consciousness overloaded with vivid images of impending death, either by the bomb or in Korea. At least this is the way things appear to narrator Marcus Messner, the 19-year-old son of a Newark kosher butcher. Perhaps because Marcus's dad saw his two brothers' only sons die in WWII, he becomes an overprotective paranoid when Marcus turns 18, prompting Marcus to flee to Winesburg College in Ohio. Though the distance helps, Marcus, too, is haunted by the idea that flunking out of college means going to Korea. His first date in Winesburg is with doctor's daughter Olivia Hutton, who would appear to embody the beautiful normality Marcus seeks, but, instead, she destroys Marcus's sense of normal by surprising him after dinner with her carnal prowess. Slightly unhinged by this stroke of fortune, he at first shuns her, then pesters her with letters and finally has a brief but nonpenetrative affair with her. Olivia, he discovers, is psychologically fragile and bears scars from a suicide attempt — a mark Marcus's mother zeroes in on when she meets the girl for the first and last time. Between promising his mother to drop her and longing for her, Marcus goes through a common enough existential crisis, exacerbated by run-ins with the school administration over trivial matters that quickly become more serious. All the while, the reader is aware of something awful awaiting Marcus, due to a piece of information casually dropped about a third of the way in: 'And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long...' The terrible sadness of Marcus's life is rendered palpable by Roth's fierce grasp on the psychology of this butcher's boy, down to his bought-for-Winesburg wardrobe. It's a melancholy triumph and a cogent reflection on society in a time of war. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Copies of "Indignation," Philip Roth's ferocious little tale, ought to be handed out on college campuses along with condoms and tetanus shots. This cathartic story might vent some of the volatile self-righteousness that can consume the lives of passionate young people (and, yes, old people too). It's not that it breaks any new ground; the author's favorite themes are all here — the comic sexual frustration... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of "Portnoy's Complaint," the assimilation anxieties of the "Zuckerman" books, the enraged grievance of "The Human Stain" — but with "Indignation," Roth presents his most concentrated parable of self-destructive fury. The narrator, Marcus Messner, is the perfect son, "a prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student." He never gets in trouble, never smokes or drinks or stays out late. He works at his father's kosher butcher shop, and he loves his parents. But that's not enough to save him from the deadly absurdity of adult life. Just as he did in "The Plot Against America," Roth has again captured the corrosive effects of anxiety fueled by military conflict abroad. But his focus in this novel seems at first narrower: the disastrous experiences of a single Jewish family in Newark, N.J. That this family's disintegration is entirely self-inflicted makes it all the more frightening. Marcus is the first Messner to go off to college, which should have cheered his father but, instead, fills him only with dread. "My father became frightened that I would die," Marcus tells us. The North Koreans have recently crossed the 38th parallel, and the United States has rushed into war. The possibility of his son being drafted tips Mr. Messner into paranoia. "I believed he had gone crazy," Marcus says, "crazy with worry that his cherished only child was as unprepared for the hazards of life as anyone else entering manhood, crazy with the frightening discovery that a little boy grows up, grows tall, overshadows his parents, and that you can't keep him then, that you have to relinquish him to the world." This mature and analytical tone — clearly Roth intruding on his young narrator's voice — is a persistent flaw in the novel, but as a bitter parody of the hovering parent, the character of Mr. Messner is spot-on. Any father wandering around in the twilight of his child's adolescence will wince at this portrayal of a life "turned inside out by unrelenting intimations of catastrophe." Their arguments grow so frustrating that Marcus finally says, "I had to get away from him before I killed him." In desperation, he withdraws from the college near his parents' house and transfers to a small Christian school in Winesburg, Ohio, 500 miles away, chosen on the basis of a photo in the college catalog of a handsome, confident boy whom Marcus hopes to become. The rest of this brief novel burns through his single, disastrous year in Winesburg, the setting of that early 20th-century classic by Sherwood Anderson in which perfectly ordinary townsfolk are driven mad by their repressed desires and anxieties. Marcus' experience is an alternately hilarious and horrifying fulfillment of his father's paranoia. He hates everything about his new school: His roommates make it impossible to study; his teachers are "either too starchy or too folksy"; the fraternities are obnoxious; the men at the club where he works are anti-Semites; the college's chapel requirement offends his atheism. He lives, in other words, in a constant white-hot flame of indignation. And the most disturbing part is that he's right, but he's too naive to realize that being right is irrelevant. The only pleasant thing that happens to him is a date with a sophisticated, sexually aggressive student named Olivia Hutton, but when she responds to his overtures more enthusiastically than he expects, he's completely undone. He can think of nothing but her, not just as an object of obsessive fantasy, but as "an enigma so profound" that he's determined to solve it, even if that means alienating everyone around him, including Olivia. It's a classic piece of Rothian sexual comedy slipping into dark shades of madness. "How could such bliss as had befallen me also be such a burden?" Marcus wonders. "I who should have been the most satisfied man in all of Winesburg was instead the most bewildered." At the heart of the novel is a conversation between Marcus and the college dean, who has caught wind of this new student's almost immediate estrangement on campus. The dean is a little bit of a blowhard, a little pompous perhaps, a little condescending — a dean, in other words — but Marcus responds to his avuncular admonishments with ever increasing stridency. They engage in a long argument that reverberates right off the page with all the tension and fury Roth can bring to dialogue. As this poor young man spirals further into a fit of self-righteous anger, you can't look away; it's like some awesome aerial disaster. Trying to parry the dean's uncomfortably accurate critique of his attitude, Marcus spouts Bertrand Russell, but inwardly he sings "the most beautiful word in the English language: 'In-dig-na-tion!'" He fantasizes about running "around the campus shouting it at the top of my lungs." How intoxicating to feel so righteous, but what a burden! Inflamed with a grandiose sense of his aggrievement, Marcus grows more irrational, more terrified of the possibility of ending up on the bloody mountains of Korea, slaughtered and drained like the carcasses in his father's butcher shop. His catastrophizing seems absurd until, in the final pages of the book, a startling revelation yanks our perspective back from the comedy of this young man's self-justification and sexual frustration. Here's a novel to be witnessed as an explosion from an author still angry enough to burn with adolescent rage and wise enough to understand how self-destructive that rage can be. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A]s provocative as his astonishing Plot Against America....[A] fast-paced, compassionate, humorous, historically conscious novel..." Booklist (Starred Review)
"The book has a taut, elegant symmetry....A twist in narrative perspective reinforces this novel's timelessness." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"A meditation on love, death, and madness, Roth's new novel combines the comic absurdity of his early novels like Portnoy's Complaint with the pathos of his later novels like Everyman and Exit Ghost." Library Journal (Starred Review)
"[P]erhaps we've been around these bends with him before, but he is a master....The shocking rush from this book comes from watching Roth expertly and quickly build up to a half-dozen final pages that absolutely deliver the kill. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"What the novel lacks in scale, it compensates for in its writing. Roth lovingly describes the bloodletting rituals of a kosher butcher." USA Today
"Philip Roth is our greatest living novelist, and his new book, Indignation, is an irritating, puzzling and fascinating bundle of mistakes, miscalculations and self-indulgences." Los Angeles Times
"Here's a novel to be witnessed as an explosion from an author still angry enough to burn with adolescent rage and wise enough to understand how self-destructive that rage can be." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
"[T]his book features some of Roth's most exuberant writing, especially in the brilliantly imagined confrontations between conservative authority and spirited independence on the pastoral campus of Winesburg." The Miami Herald
"Indignation is impossible to put down until it's finished. Then, it's impossible to shake off the aftermath of this mesmerizing story." The Seattle Times
About the Author
In 1997, Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow, among others. He has twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times.
In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians' prize for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004."
Recently Roth received PEN's two most prestigious prizes: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award for "a body of work…of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship" and in 2007 the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for achievement in American Fiction, given to a writer whose "scale of achievement over a sustained career…places him or her in the highest rank of American literature."
Roth is the only living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. The last of eight volumes is scheduled for publication in 2013.
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