Friday, August 15, 2008

Philip Roth's Indignation

I just can’t decide whether or not I liked Philip Roth’s upcoming novel, Indignation. As always, Roth is a master in narrative voice, and this predominantly first-person approach recalls some of his best work, notably The Ghost Writer and Operation Shylock. This book isn’t as good as those, but it is demonstrably better than last year’s Exit Ghost.

Marcus Messner is a college sophomore who has moved from Newark (where else?) during the second year of the Korean War to Winesburg College in the middle of Ohio to escape the father who is so consumed
with worry that it is negatively impacting the entire family. Like most new adults away from home for the first time, or at least me, Marcus is very angry and negative. Though his beefs are often legitimate, his inability yield to discretion in any conflict makes him a very unhappy person. He is stuck in a spiral of becoming more indignant because his indignation increases when he witnesses the response of others.

The heart of this book is a simple one, at least it seems to me. The narrative makes clear that one should manage one’s indignation so that it doesn’t weight them down. As the later chapters reveal, one can be right and still be a loser. It’s a theme that we’ve all seen a dozen times, but it is handled well here.

Marcus is narrating the story from beyond the grave, where he resides in a timeless place that allows him to repeat and focus on any moments of his life. He claims that this first year at Winesburg College is the most memorable, much like the last year if his life. It isn’t the focus of the story, yet as Roth often does, several philosophical asides discuss what death after life must be. With Roth’s last three novels all focusing around old age and death, it shouldn’t be surprising to see a story centered around a young man be possessed by similar themes.

The prose was great, all always; so was the sparkling dialogue. In my opinion, no one writes dialogue like Roth. I appreciated the unconventional narrative angle, and even though I didn’t really like Marcus all that much, I wanted to know what was going to happen to him, his family, and his friends next and so I read the entire novel in one sitting. I know I am missing any allusions to Sherwood Anderson’s novel as I’ve not read it (too boring, even for a classic), but the Indignation seemed a bit shallow to me.

Kind of like the supposed 'beach read.' Entertaining, but you aren't really supposed to think much about it when you're done.

On a related note, there are only eight scheduled editions of the Library of America's complete works of Philip Roth (even though they did leave out a published but uncollected story), five of which have been or will soon be released. I'm going to be interested to see what LoA decides if Roth keeps writing a book a year for the next decade.

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