Just try to put "Indignation" down — or forget it
"Indignation," Philip Roth's latest novel, is an audacious story of paranoia and tragic missteps set in the early years of the Korean War.
Special to The Seattle Times
Philip RothThe author
will discuss "Indignation" in a live webcast
at 5 p.m. Tuesday at
the Seattle location of University
by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $26
"Indignation," Philip Roth's intrepid novel of self-revelation, demands to be read in one sitting. It's that good. It's that audacious. It's that compelling.
At first, it looks as though the novel is a straightforward coming-of-age story set in 1952, the second year of the Korean War. But less than a fourth of the way into the book, Roth has a very big surprise in store for the reader — one that would trigger a spoiler alert.
It's indignation that drives 19-year-old Marcus Messner, an only child who demonstrates that "history is not the background — history is the stage" for his personal saga. Marcus' father, a kosher butcher, is paranoid, obsessed with the thought that deadly dangers threaten his son. Unable to express his own individuality while living at home and attending a college in downtown Newark, Marcus seeks solace hundreds of miles away at Winesburg College, a small Ohio-based liberal-arts school. Marcus learns early on that "the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences."
The first clue that something might be amiss is the title of the lengthy first section, "Under Morphine." The bulk of the novel's story is contained in this section. In essence, the whole novel is a "memory grotto" of Marcus' "recollected past" revolving around the consequences of his rebellious actions.
Marcus' problems at the Ohio college begin immediately. He cannot bear his roommates, especially one who plays Beethoven at top volume. After Marcus moves to a different room, another roommate insults one of Marcus' sexually forward dates, and Marcus feels compelled to move again, this time to "the worst room on the worst floor of the worst dorm."
These frequent moves elicit a summons from the dean of men, Hawes D. Caudwell. Marcus' discussion with the dean is infused with the precepts of Bertrand Russell. In one of the longest sequences of the novel, much is revealed about Marcus' vulnerability, his morals, his political and religious thinking. The dean excoriates Marcus for being "unable to reach a compromise with people." In fact, as a result of the conference with Caudwell, Marcus' involvement with another student leads to the devastating and revelatory resolution of the novel.
"Indignation" is impossible to put down until it's finished. Then, it's impossible to shake off the aftermath of this mesmerizing story.
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