Indignation, by Philip Roth, Jonathan Cape, 233 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0224085137
Indignation has always been at the core of Philip Roth’s fiction. Goodbye, Columbus, his debut novella which won the 1960 National Book Award and established him as a major talent while still in his twenties, was a study in class resentment and sexual betrayal. A decade later, Roth was vaulted to unwelcome international celebrity by the psychiatrist’s-couch, masturbatory ravings of the eponymous narrator of Portnoy’s Complaint (that “wild blue shocker”, as Life magazine called it). Across a half century of writing that has produced twenty-nine books – satire, fantasy, memoir, masterworks of American realism – anger has consistently been subject, theme, tone, stance, and rhetorical device for Roth and his driven characters and unreliable narrators.
Even The Facts, a mostly even-toned autobiographical account of his upbringing and early life, published when Roth was in his mid-fifties, surrenders the last word (the last 8,000 actually) to his abrasive fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Having opened the book with a letter to Zuckerman asking him to read the manuscript, Roth closes it with Zuckerman’s blunt reply: “Don’t publish.” Absurdly but powerfully he accuses Roth of failing to characterise himself: “You no longer have any idea who you are or ever were.” Zuckerman goes on to chastise his creator for timidity and uses this unique opportunity to register his scorn towards Roth for saddling him (“for artistic reasons”) with a hate-filled father who condemns him from his deathbed.
Roth’s latest novel takes its title more specifically from his primary-school recollection of a nationalist song that would become the Chinese national anthem, sung in some American classrooms during World War II as a gesture of solidarity for a people oppressed by the Japanese military. The song begins: “Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen, / Arise! Arise! Arise!” For Roth, this scrap of memory has persisted throughout his writing life as objective correlative for his own (or his characters’) anger with, among other things, national orthodoxy, puritanical social codes, counter-culture anarchy, political correctness, the onset of old age, the timidity of the middle class, the decline of sexual power and the arbitrariness of history. In 1969, Roth had Alexander Portnoy note that the anthem starts with “his favorite word in the English language”. Four decades later, his nineteen-year-old narrator of Indignation, Marcus Messner, when forced to attend Christian religious services at his rural Ohio college, inwardly sings “the most beautiful word in the English language: ‘In-dig-na-tion!’”
Why the telling repetition? Why all the rancour? Well, like Swift and Twain, Roth is aesthetically propelled by anger; it supplies the energy needed for the massive, self-imposed task of dissecting, novel after novel, the suffocating paradoxes of twentieth-century America. And like Lenny Bruce, Roth in his early work used rant as a way of exercising his vitality and crafting an obscenity-fuelled response to a bland, hypocritical national environment. As he’s matured, however, his anger has grown more complex, manipulated as carefully as the shifting voices and points of view that help make his prolific body of fiction both deeply tragic and rich in comic expression. Sex, death, and American history are the subjects of his late period, relentlessly ravelled and unravelled, presented with willful ambiguity in a variety of dazzling narrative modes, marked by extended passages of highly articulate rage, and expressed in language of huge power and range.
At his best. But Indignation is a long way from Roth at his best, even though (perhaps because) it explores personal and historical territory long familiar to his readers. By his own account, Roth’s writing evolved from three personal forces: Jewish family and neighbourhood, the upheavals of early love and his response to the wider world. His portrait of the artist would begin in his home town of Newark, New Jersey, in a third-generation Jewish-American home dominated by well-meaning but interfering parents and the constricting social mores of forties America. His boyhood awareness of World War II, his exposure to the dominant Gentile culture (and to Gentile women), and the social and political turbulence of the sixties shaped his early work, leading to the point where these three forces intersected and produced the phenomenon that is Portnoy’s Complaint.
Messner, like so many of Roth’s narrators, shares this background, though Indignation does not extend beyond 1952, when he is killed in the Korean War. The novel, narrated either from a morphine-induced sleep or posthumously (Roth admits to the ambiguity), begins in 1950 with obedient, straight-A Marcus working sixty-hour weeks in his father’s kosher butcher shop in Newark and attending the local Robert Treat College. Painfully self-aware, overprotected, he is accelerating into the familiar Rothian divisions between family and self, mind and body, sex and restraint, desire and duty. These tensions sharpen when his father, with less motivation than a reader would like, grows “crazy with worry that his cherished only child was as unprepared for the hazards of life as anyone else entering manhood”, and badgers his son relentlessly with vague but persistent fears “about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences”. Under this pressure, Marcus flees Newark and enrolls in a Christian liberal arts college in Winesburg, Ohio (a nod to Sherwood Anderson and a parallel with Roth’s 1950 enrolment in Baptist-founded Bucknell University in rural Pennsylvania, where, he has said, he felt “like a Houyhnhnm”).
This shift of setting, a scant fourteen pages into the novel, is abrupt and unsatisfactory. While we are in Newark – “hard-working, coarse-grained, bribe-ridden, semi-xenophobic Irish-Italian-German-Slavic-Jewish-Negro Newark” – we are on solid, if fleeting, ground. The descriptions of the neighbourhood and the butcher shop, its rituals, its customers, its knives and cleavers and aprons bathed in blood, resonantly evoke the urban Jewish milieu of the time while suggesting with macabre symbolism the physical threat of a distant war to American boys. Once in Winesburg, however, Roth relies on thinly sketched set pieces to explore a broader conflict. Jumping from family frying pan into the Gentile fire, Marcus is immersed in “the constricting rectitude” of postwar middle America, and he reacts with confusion, self-righteousness and indignation. But we are not convinced.
Missing are sharpness and detail, always among the virtues of Roth’s best fiction. His re-creation of college conformity and hypocrisy is accurate but adds nothing to our understanding of this oft-explored world. Fraternities, sexual duplicity, attending chapel, grey flannel trousers and white buckskin shoes, parked-car sex, circle jerks and panty raids, dull professors and austere deans – and beneath it all hysteria over the Soviet menace and atomic bombs and the steady butchery of young men in Korea. We have been here before, many times, and sixty years after the fact what are we to make of such restatement? Especially when the language and the narrative lack the precision and freshness we expect from Roth.
Anger is certainly in abundance: on campus, Marcus’s unfocused rebelliousness brings him into conflict with several roommates, with frat boys, with mildly anti-Semitic fellow students, with Olivia Hutton, a beautiful, damaged shiksa whose sexual liberty he cannot understand, and most significantly with Dean Hawes Caudwell, the book’s clearest representative of WASP authority, to whom Marcus pompously quotes verbatim from Bertrand Russell’s lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian”. Beneath the aggression is Marcus’s fear that each new dispute will see him expelled and sent to certain death in Korea – which is of course exactly what happens, bringing Messner père’s worst fear into being and neatly illustrating the book’s tragic premise that, indeed, the worst of fates can result from the smallest misstep.
But the bigger the theme the more important the execution, and Indignation’s narrative is awkwardly constructed and too sparingly detailed. The encounters with the dean and others do not ring true. Climaxing the story is an ill-fated panty raid, which, having nothing to do with Marcus, feels stranded and diversionary. The dialogue is often stilted, and the direct references to Russell feel like a thematic short-cut. When Marcus reads to his mother from an American history text, it is a device for baldly pointing out that history invades our living rooms – a favourite theme, but this time inserted into the narrative with a heavy hand. Most of all we lack the engines of Roth’s genius: energy and aggressive effusiveness. Instead of detail we get a post-modern gloss on experience, the semantics, syntax, and punctuation of the commentary often tortuous:
And even dead, as I am and have been for I don’t know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen. Even now (if “now” can be said to mean anything any longer), beyond corporeal existence, alive as I am here (if “here” or “I” means anything) as memory alone (if “memory,” strictly speaking, is the all-embracing medium in which I am being sustained as “myself”), I continue to puzzle over Olivia’s actions. Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae?
In Roth’s back-to-back masterpieces from the mid-nineties, Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, it is the detail, dense and richly seamed and exuberant, not mucked over but meticulously observed and precisely applied, that is the foundation of the books’ impact and depth. As in Indignation, the contemplation of death is at the heart of these fictions, and the link between the minutiae of a lifetime and the blankness of its end is explicit in the language and imagery. As Nathan Zuckerman says in American Pastoral:
detail, the immensity of the detail … the rich endlessness of detail surrounding you in your young life like the six feet of dirt that’ll be packed on your grave when you’re dead.
In Indignation, death is embodied in an awkward trope that confuses without purpose and fails to bring into artistic focus the short novel’s disparate scenes; but in the earlier books it is a universal force, pumped by rage, coursing through the narratives like blood, though in quite different ways. Sabbath’s Theater is ribald, blasphemous, hilarious, and frequently disturbing. Its protagonist, Mickey Sabbath, an unemployed 64-year-old puppeteer who has been warring with society since serving time for public obscenity in the fifties (one of his finger puppets would disrobe young women in the audience), is Falstaff, Lear and Fool rolled into one. The incarnation of disorder, he is grieving the death of his lover and struggling with the recognition that he is no longer in charge of the vital forces at work in his life or even of the language that gushes through his consciousness and onto the book’s vibrant pages:
The mind is the perpetual motion machine. You’re not ever free of anything. Your mind’s in the hands of everything. The personal’s an immensity, nuncle, a constellation of detritus that doth dwarf the Milky Way …
The overwhelming flow of words and detail can be painful, even horrific, driving Sabbath to thoughts of suicide, but it is the stuff of life. As the novel progresses, the language surges and foams, echoing Lear’s final speeches, driven by Sabbath’s debauched, promiscuous personality, fending off the end by indulging in the wayward present and recalling the whoring and seduction and deception of his past. Abandoning his reformed-alcoholic wife in their rural New England home, he heads to New York City for the funeral of an old friend with the intention of finishing himself off as well. But visiting the New Jersey neighbourhood of his upbringing, meeting a hundred-year-old cousin he thought long dead and discovering a carton of letters and memorabilia of his dead brother, shot down by the Japanese in 1944, carry Sabbath and the novel to a climactic pitch of sensible intensity that envelops the reader not just with an ache of sympathy but with a profound sense of the artistic appropriateness of Sabbath’s discovery and the way it brings the entire novel into emotional alignment. It makes the panty raid in Indignation seem like … well, like a panty raid.
There was nothing before in Sabbath’s life like this carton … The pure, monstrous purity of the suffering was new to him, made any and all suffering he’d known previously seem like an imitation of suffering. This was the passionate, the violent stuff, the worst, intended to torment one species alone, the remembering animal, the animal with the long memory. And prompted merely by lifting out of the carton and holding in his hand what Yetta Sabbath had stored there of her older son’s.
And what Mickey lifts out is lovingly, beautifully detailed: letters, photographs, recordings. A Bible, a prayer book and a yarmulke. His brother’s toilet case and money belt. A clarinet in five pieces. A GI sewing kit, dog tags, a diary. His Purple Heart. An American flag. And so on.
Thirty-five years after Goodbye, Columbus, Sabbath’s Theater won Roth his second National Book Award. Harold Bloom declared it his masterwork. But at sixty, Roth was only getting started. Or restarted. In his late fifties, he has said, after living for an extended period in England, he had begun
to feel less and less connected to America. I began to feel I was losing touch with American life. And so by 1989 I realised I couldn’t do this any more. So I came back. It was a wonderful return home, because I rediscovered an old subject, which was this country, and I began to write those books about America. It was the best situation. I found a new subject which was an old subject that I knew. All the old stuff was fresh for me.
American Pastoral, the immediate successor to Sabbath’s Theater, is the first and best of a trilogy of Zuckerman novels that explore frustration with social and political developments in the US since Roth’s (and Zuckerman’s) boyhood during the forties, consistently presented as a high point of American idealism and social cohesion. Along with I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, American Pastoral is full of complex disillusion with what America has become. “The mythic words on which Roth’s generation was brought up – winning, patriotism, gamesmanship – are desanctified,” Hermione Lee has written. “Greed, fear, racism and political ambition are disclosed as the motive forces behind the ‘all-American ideals’.”
These books are highly political but not, as some readers describe them, polemical. In the recent Zuckerman novels, Roth has said in an interview with Lee, he has
tried to conceive in miniature something of what was happening on a national scale and to turn the public into people by delineating characters who are not symbolic but individual and whose utterances aren’t symbolic but particular and integral to their predicament. I’m not out to make fiction into a political statement. Rather, I’m out to do what fiction and only fiction does: to portray in a sustained narrative those who did make political statements. I want to present in detail a strong political moment in our … communal life, I want to try to understand what’s what, to be contiguous not with my biases or anyone else’s but with reality.
In American Pastoral, Roth, via Zuckerman, delineates the character of Seymour “The Swede” Levov, an American Jew who could not be more different from Mickey Sabbath. Handsome, thoroughly assimilated, he is presented as a simple, kind conformist who has ridden the “immigrant rocket” to the American Dream – a high-school sports star, Marine Corps veteran, husband to Miss New Jersey 1949, owner of an eighteenth-century stone house in an idyllic Newark suburb, millionaire businessman and father to a precocious daughter who belongs to the 4-H Club, studies ballet and easily gets top grades in school. But this ideal only child turns out to be, in the Swede’s brother’s words, a monster, who turns intensely radical during the Vietnam War, kills a man when she plants a bomb at the local post office in 1968 and goes on the run for five years, during which time she is raped and dehumanised, while remaining completely out of contact with her family. This tragedy splits the Swede in two, so that his conformist exterior is underlain by a savage, disorderly grief.
And of course the personal tragedy mirrors the historical: just as the Swede is torn apart, late-sixties America is rent as violently as the Temple of Solomon, Newark itself destroyed by riots and killings that erupt, as they did in cities all over the country in those years, as if in retribution for America’s complacency, hypocrisy and the violence of its past. The book climaxes in a gut-wrenching extended scene of utter emotional devastation, a dinner party for his parents held in the Swede’s house on a late summer evening in 1973, at the height of the Watergate hearings. The dinner concludes a day during which the Swede has discovered that his terrorist daughter Merry, after her half-decade on the run, is living as a starving Jainist in a hovel in Newark, an hour away from his home; that she had murdered three more people after the first bomb; that she has been raped repeatedly; that five years ago she had been harboured for three days after her initial crime by her speech therapist, a family friend who never told the Swede what she had done, even during a four-month affair with him (she and her husband are at the dinner party); that his wife is also having an affair with their architect, a competitive, “civic-minded” WASP – he too is at the party with his alcoholic wife – whose apparent one-dimensionality is spectacularly stripped away when the Swede glimpses him before dinner dry-humping Dawn Levov at the kitchen sink. Quite a day, even for a Philip Roth novel.
This magnificent scene, spread across the last 140 pages of the book, is peppered with references to Oedipus Rex, references that have been earned. The novel is tragic on no less a level. Having endeavoured to secure for himself a life beyond the reach of history, the Swede suffers the worst fall. A private, ahistorical, compliant man, he is crushed, as Roth puts it, “by the incursion into his home of the history that isn’t quite yet history – destroyed by the present American moment”. And he is fully conscious of the destruction, which is among other things a classical descent into knowledge of corruption. As he sits at the dinner table, utterly ravaged but managing to present a mask of stability to those who have helped destroy him, he thinks: “Was life just one big deception that everyone was on to except him?”
Rage, “the desperation of the counter-pastoral”, is all over the novel: in the Swede’s stammering daughter’s hatred of Lyndon Johnson; in his brother’s war with father, marriage and convention; in Newark’s burn-baby-burn looters and snipers; in his father’s disgust and incomprehension at what has happened to his home town and to his country; and finally, after resisting it with all his strength, in the Swede’s ultimate recognition that his all-American conception of himself – “a natural, a man at ease here, a Jew wholly at peace as a satisfied American citizen, a man with no secrets at all” – has evaporated, leaving only “the horror of self-reflection”:
Lead me not into this day! Seeing so much so fast. And how stoical he had always been in his ability not to see, how prodigious had been his powers to regularize … And the instrument of this unblinding is Merry. The daughter has made her father see … He had thought most of it was order and only a little of it was disorder. He’d had it backwards. He had made his fantasy and Merry had unmade it for him. It was not the specific war that she’d had in mind, but it was a war, nonetheless, that she brought home to America – home into her very own house.
So after all the Shakespearian suffering and wrath, Roth brings us to a very American, very un-Shakespearian ending: chaos, unbreachable dissent, the shattering of society’s shared ideals. No Fortinbras to restore order. Instead of a king we all can trust, we get Richard Nixon at his worst. It is a difficult book for an American to read; here we have Roth at his most pessimistic, the Roth who believes that literature, and perhaps America, is a lost cause. Yet he produces this American masterpiece.
By comparison, Indignation reads like an exercise. Marcus Messner, too, is a victim of American idealism gone wrong, a hostage to history. But missing the focus, the urgency, and above all the substance of the earlier novels, the new book fails to give him the tragic dimension it aims for. Roth is too good a writer for the book not to have passages of wit and brilliance, but he is too great a one for us to be anything less than dissatisfied with it. The outrage lacks tragedy and the narrative lacks felt life.
We expect Roth to feel life, always, and to make us feel it, no matter how virulently he and his characters rail against it. He has said of his adolescence that it was
about our aggression, our going out into Newark, three or four of us, wandering the streets at night, shooting crap in back of the high school with flashlights, girls, going after your date to this gathering place called Syd’s on Chancellor Avenue and telling your sex stories … Appetite. Maybe that’s the word. It was the appetites that were aggressive.
For a long time now Roth has lived in the Connecticut countryside, far from the urban intensity of his youth, and these days his aggressive appetites are channelled into his fiction, more and more a fierce reaction to the inevitable suffering of the “remembering animal”. Yet for all his indignation Roth celebrates what gives us pain. To remember is to suffer, but to suffer is to live.
And in spite of the tragic breadth of American Pastoral, it is Sabbath’s Theater that leaves us with a more balanced appreciation for Roth’s genius. Comedy – dark saturnaliac comedy – is Roth’s most natural narrative mode and Mickey Sabbath is his greatest comic creation. So when Mickey ends his thanatotic odyssey to New York and New Jersey; when he wraps himself in his dead brother’s American flag and wanders the Jersey shore for hours, raving about “the one loss he would never bull his way through”; when he returns to his rural home and discovers his wife in bed with her lesbian lover; when he makes his way to the local cemetery and pisses on his dead lover’s grave as they pissed on each other in their most extreme, most intimate sexual encounter; and when he is caught in the act by her state-policeman son, arrested and brought to a lonely stretch of road where he expects, hopes, to be killed – then, as the son refuses to end the agony and sets him free, we know what Mickey means when he cries out in anguish at having to live on:
And he couldn’t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.
Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.