Book Review of Indignation by Philip Roth

Indignation – Philip Roth

Book Review of Indignation by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s 29th novel, Indignation, is only the fourth I have read by this author.  I am not a great fan of the American novel, but reading The Human Stain a few years ago convinced me that I was missing out by ignoring Roth.  

The message his novels bring is not to do with hope about the state of humanity, but rather a sort of frustration, even rage, caused by the way we treat one another and the way generations pass on their negative experiences by word and deed,  limiting our ability to be wholly good.

Marcus Messner is brought up in a family of butchers. He is conscientious, hard-working, studious, and although he helps his parents in the shop, learning from a young age to deal with blood and visceral matter, he excels at school and achieves top grades throughout his education. During his last months before going to college in Ohio, his job was “not just to pluck the chickens, but to eviscerate them.

You slit the ass open a bit and you stick your hand up and you grab the viscera and you pull them out . . . that’s what I learned from my father and what I loved learning from him:  that you do what you have to do.

Marcus is socially withdrawn has few friends,  In his late teens his father becomes overly-controlling, developing an obsession that his son is going to be killed by the many dangers that lurk in the world.  He lays down more and more rules, constantly worrying about Marcus and questioning him whenever he comes home.  

Marcus works late at college and one night returns to find himself locked out of the house, “in order to teach him a lesson” about never coming home late again.  His only way out from his father’s domination seems to be to leave his local college and move away to a different institution far from home.  

He almost randomly selects Winesburg College in Ohio where his isolation seems to be complete among local students who seem dedicated to having a good time rather than following a course of earnest study as Marcus wishes to.

Marcus seems alienated from the campus life, refusing to join a college fraternity and falling foul of the Principal who seems to see his solitary lifestyle as a rebuke to the health-giving qualities of football and fraternal brotherhood which Marcus has so roundly rejected.  

The encounters Marcus has with the Principal are excruciatingly embarrassing and Roth’s searing prose exposes the shallowness and incompetence of the college leadership.

Eventually Marcus forms a relationship with Olivia, a fellow-student, falling in love with her despite her damaged psyche and scarred wrists.  The two seem to be drawn to each other, but Olivia is not quite what she seems and Marcus’ obsession with her leads to great mental pain for both of them.  

There is a wonderful scene when Marcus is in hospital with after an appendix operation and is visited by his mother who meets Olivia and immediately sees the scars on her bare arms.  Her reaction is brutal and immediate, revealing the ever-deepening rift between parents and child.

I could describe the story further but this would only spoil the book for other readers.  Suffice to say that Roth demonstrates once again his ascendancy in the American literary world, with a style both readable but painful.  The evisceration of the chickens quoted above from earlier in the book is an apt metaphor for what happens to Marcus – and to some extent the readers of his story.

I think Roth would agree with Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse, “they fuck you up your Mum and Dad” and in particular, the main character of Indignation would echo Larkin’s words:

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

Roth cannot be ignored. This is not a “story” so much as a set of statements about college life, parent/child relationships, the journey to adulthood and self-determination, 1950s morality and many other themes.  

Roth’s novels are in some sense a standard by which others are judged.  If you want to understand something about the state of the novel at the start of the 21st century then this book is in my view essential reading.

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