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Indignation

by Philip Roth

About.com Rating 2 Star Rating

By

Indignation

© Houghton Mifflin

Houghton Mifflin, September 2008

Philip Roth's Indignation is a surprisingly weak offering from the otherwise critically acclaimed author of American Pastoral, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. This book reads more like the first draft of a potentially great book; the reader is left with the feeling that Roth may have gotten tired of writing it about half way through, or was under deadline (hard to believe).

The story is narrated by a young Jewish man from New Jersey, Marcus Messner, and follows him as he escapes his overly-protective father by transferring to a college in Winesburg, Ohio for his sophomore year, having spent his freshman year a little too close to home at a local college. Although he comes from a long line of kosher butchers, he is determined to work hard to improve his social status, and to avoid being drafted by the armed forces for service in the Korean War, the backdrop for the novel.

The gruesome and bloody imagery in his memories of the butcher's block of his youth allude to the butchering occurring daily in Korea, and we are reminded time and again that Marcus fears his every mistake will lead to expulsion, being drafted, and his inevitable death in Korea. His steadfast attempts to stay focused on his studies lead to conflict with his roommates, campus fraternities, his parents and the Dean, and we are reminded of the classic struggle of a young man coming of age, straining against the authorities that would hem him in at every turn.
However, while most authors are able to generate sympathy for their protagonists by telling the tale from their perspective, young Marcus's rebellion seems self-righteous and immature. It is difficult to care about this annoying young man, and his woefully ill-advised love affair with the most unstable woman on campus (complete with suicidal tendencies and sexual promiscuity) will make even the most romantically inclined reader cringe. The romance itself consists mainly of several long-winded letters and a couple of uncomfortably graphic sexual grope-matches. At best the reader may identify with moments of his own self-aggrandizing youth that he might rather forget.

After lying in my bunk for about a quarter of an hour while Elwyn remained studying at his desk, I bolted upright to announce, "She blew me."
Such charming and profound dialogue is typical of Roth in Indignation; the phrase "too much information" comes to mind throughout this short work. However, too much information is the opposite of the problem with the novel as a whole. It seems as though Roth was trying to write a book similar in structure to The Plot Against America, but in half as many words; one wishes he had gone ahead and written the long version. In the former book he was able to express a compelling human drama within the context of a fascinating world drama, both of which were exciting and visceral, each session with the book leaving the reader wanting more, right up to the very end.

Indignation fails on both plot lines, and just kind of shoves them together at the end. In fact the ending is the worst kind of deus ex machina of expository writing, where we are suddenly told by a new narrator what has really happened in the novel, and what precisely we are supposed to learn from it - all in nine quick pages!
Although there is good, entertaining writing in places in Indignation, it is the exception, not the rule. The characters are unsympathetic and seem thin, while the the larger world issues that are apparently so important to the author are dealt with almost exclusively in the last few pages. It is only upon careful reflection that the reader can piece together how the story of this young man might relate to the world as a whole, the Korean War and quite probably the current war in Iraq. In The Plot Against America Roth wove the family story into the tapestry of the story of the larger world around them in a way that showed the reader how vitally connected the two were, and the humanity of the characters and their plights caused all but the most heartless to commiserate. By failing to develop the characters in Indignation enough for his audience to really find them lovable, it should come as no surprise when no one really cares what happens to them.

The story is a good idea, but it never should have been published at this point in its development. Indignation is an editorial failure as much as anything else.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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