Book Review

The wages of sin is death

Philip Roth (2008)
Indignation. Johannesburg, Jonathan Cape, Random House, 235 pages, hardcover, 16.99, ISBN 978-0-224-08513-7. Available through Exclusive Books.

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Indignation is Philip Roth's latest and 29th book. Abandoning Zuckerman and Kepesh he now lashes out with anger and outrage at perceived unfair treatment with Old Testament vigour. His brash voice of annoyance has produced another bestseller and made the New York Times top 100 books of 2008. I am not sure why, as with a number of other of Roth's recent novels the premonition is of demise and the consequence of uncontrolled anger is death.

Exit Ghost Roth's ninth and final Zuckerman novel was out in 2007 (Mmegi, March 7 2008). He has now turned again to his roots in Newark, New Jersey, and to events in 1950 and 1951, before and during the Korean War that began on June 25, 1950.

Indignation is the story of Marcus Messner, a good (and he means "good") Jewish boy whose father and mother are local, respected Kosher butchers. His loving and hardworking mother calls him "Markie". It is the story of a conservative upbringing, one marked by hard work in the family business, respect for parents and relatives, respect for the customers of the family butchery. Marcus works in the family business over holidays. Roth takes great pleasure in describing what it means to run a Kosher butchery, including how the animals are killed, bled to death and blessed. But it is their necks that are cut, not their "wrists"-an inappropriate comparison he drags out later on.

Roth has tried to capture what happens when a young man who has grown up independent yet sheltered and protected by family and community, leaves that social environment to go out into the world on his own. Because Marcus has not been prepared for what he experiences and as a loner does not adequately seek assistance in comprehending what is happening to him, he has embarked on a path to disaster.

Marcus is tall, attractive, but has not acquired the social skills to survive on his own in the mid-West. He graduates from high school in 1950 and immediately starts his tertiary studies at a local college, Roger Treat, in New Jersey. His independence irks his father, who becomes obsessive about what Marcus is doing and where he is every minute of his new life. In his controlling concern, he even locks his son out of the house. Later Mrs Messner says, "I think he is losing his mind" ... then that it is "fear leaking out of every pore, anger leaking out at every pore, and I don't know how to stop either one". Marcus says:

"I believed he had gone crazy. And he had: crazy with worry that his cherished only child was unprepared for the hazards of life as anyone else entering manhood, crazy with the frightening discovery that a little boy grows up, grows tall, overshadows his parents, and that you can't keep him then, you have to relinquish him to the world" (page 9). Marcus, reaches the last straw with his father, and for his sophomore year wins a transfer to a conservative, mid-Western, Christian college, in Winesburg, Ohio. His aspiration is to be the best student academically and in his senior year to become the valedictorian. He joins the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) to escape serving in Korea as a foot soldier on the front line. He can't get along with his roommates - during his first semester he makes three moves. He is able to date the beautiful Olivia, the girl with "a laugh that was laden with the love of life".

This novel is hailed as exploring the "impact of American history on the life of the vulnerable individual". I would beg to differ. Except for being set in 1950 and 1951 and using the Korean War as a foil it is devoid of political context. Instead it is an isolated story of a loner who objects to having to sleep with boorish roommates and to attend weekly Christian chapel because he is a non-believer of Jewish background. He is such a loner he rejects overtures from both Jewish and independent fraternities. He doesn't object to participating in the ROTC or even to the war in Korea. That he is only 19 is not an excuse for his narrow perspective in a Roth novel.

Called to confront the Dean of Students over his unusual behaviour, Marcus says to his eyes in a mirror before the interview, "Treat their chapel as part of the job that you have to do to get through this place as valedictorian-treat it the way you treat eviscerating chickens" (page 112).

Oddly 1950 and 1951 were years of intense fervour and student action across the nation not reflected in this novel. Many campuses still had returned soldiers studying under the GI Bill. There was recently a national election with the two dominant parties opposed by a strong third party, the Progressives, led by Henry Wallace who had served in Roosevelt's cabinet. On campuses across the country there was activism, often led by those who had fought against Fascism just a few years before in Europe and Asia, for racial equality, a better society, and against the nuclear arms race, the Hydrogen Bomb, the Cold War and America's intervention in Korea and China. It is strange that Marcus could have memorised the Chinese national anthem during World War II, and be inspired by it, but be ignorant of all that was going on around him now. In a few colleges students even organised against the ROTC on their campus and had it removed. Many people were indignant that America was becoming the world's self-appointed policeman.

Marcus was inspired by "Arise, ye who refuse to be bond slaves! / ... Indignation fills the hearts of all of our countrymen, / Arise! Arise! Arise!". He proclaims that Indignation is the most beautiful word in the English language, but does he arise?

"Dead men tell no tales" - but Roth's joke on his readers is that he has made a dead man tell his tale. The absurdity is that he did not have to die, there were alternatives, and if Roth is really exploring "indignation" in the early 1950s, why didn't he reveal them?

Marcus's indignation is tame. If he really was indignant he would have taken it further as did thousands of young men in the early 1950s - there were other options open to him and he would not have been ignorant of them. He could have been a Conscientious Objector, served as a CO in the armed forces, or done alterative service to military service in a community, or if absolute, gone to prison, as some COs did. He didn't have to die in Korea-Roth makes this his fate. Our indignation should be over a system that demands this of its youth, and Korea has been followed by Vietnam and Iraq and a dozen other wars in between.

Olivia is central to Marcus's tale, but we only get to know her superficially and through his eyes. She confuses him more than anything else, and his combined attraction and repulsion for her are essential to the story. Marcus expects a girlfriend to combine both aspects of being God's whore and a damned policewoman. He yearns for what she has done for him and feels he loves her for it, but he is aghast at what her behaviour may reflect and lacks the maturity or capacity to make sense of it. If she can be like that with him she must be a damned whore - his indignation of her behaviour does not help either of them.

Indignation is not the best of Roth's novels - it easily could have been more complex and a really challenging one. It is unlikely that he will return to it and rewrite it, as some authors have done. As Winesburg College does not really exist, the historical endnote on page 232 is very weak and is perhaps even superfluous?

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