Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Walhalla Book Review: Indignation, Philip Roth, 2008

Indignation, Philip Roth, 2008
Clayton Kent Lowe

Little Markie Messner always did everything just right. He received good grades, was well behaved, and, even when he became a teenager, he dutifully worked in his father's kosher butcher shop, slitting anddisemboweling chickens by knife and by hand. And he never complained because his intent in life was to please his father and to make his mother proud.

In return, his father passed his philosophy of grim resignation on to him: "You do what you have to do," and it's this self-effacing mantra that runs through Philip Roth's new novel, Indignation:

Work hard, do good, don't ask questions, and maybe, if you're lucky, you'll be socially accepted; and maybe, even more improbably, you'll make something of yourself.

That might have been an important lesson for those first immigrants who arrived in Newark around the turn of the nineteenth century, but the idea that they should keep their ambitions in check would be a source of frustration for their more upward-bound children - such as Markie."

Indignation" is set at outbreak of the Korean War, and it was the backdrop that Roth himself came of age. Not surprisingly, Roth uses one of his lead characters as a proxy for his ownself-discovery—which is a good reason to read him. On the other hand,his libido-driven male characters never seem to mature and grow up, which makes for a good reason not to read him.

Markie eventually transfers out of Newark's community college so as to escape his family problems, but he discovers that even while he's at Winesburg College in Ohio, he's still unable to escape himself and all of his emotional weaknesses.

It's at this point that, then, that "Indignation" becomes a more traditional andless sociological read. Markie fights with his roommates, has a run-inwith a popular dean, and continues to struggle with his oh-so-naïvelibido. He's also totally unforgiving of his would-be love interest, Olivia, primarily because he's never able to come to terms with the fact that she has an active libido of her own.

In this respect, young Markie becomes as reprehensible as the older womanizing professor in Roth's earlier novel, "The Dying Animal" - which was recently made into the film Elegy( that starred Ben Kingsley as yet another of Roth's professors of desire.

The sub-theme of "Indignation" is centered on the fact that Markie discovers that he can't escape the reality that his parents are Jewish; nor can he accept the fact that neither they, nor he, will ever be fully accepted into mainstream 1950s Americanculture. Yep, one more layer to an already conceptually complex novel.

Roth isn't an easy read, and it's easy to write him off as a novelist who has, himself, never emotionally matured, but that hasn't prevented him from continuing to add to his supply of literary trophies, which include a Pulitzer Prize. So perhaps you're going to have to read him yourself in order to find out what this guy's all about.

My own opinion? The jury's still out. And perhaps that's why I've had such a hard time writing this review.

"Indignation" is less precious than Roth's long ago "Goodbye,Columbus" and is more similar in tone to his recent novel "The Dying Animal". Nevertheless,Roth's novels are still much sought after as prime source material for Hollywood filmmakers. Maybe it's because filmmakers, especially independentfilmmakers, just love all of his angst.

Consequently, stay tuned for the upcoming movie version of "Indignation", because the producer of last year's critical hit( "No Country for Old Men", has already bought the rights to the novel.

But as regular readers of Roth have already discovered, it's no country for young men in Roth's novels, either.