Of all the cranky old men in the world, the last person one would assume capable of calming down has done exactly that. Philip Roth, a former enfant terrible and one of the most prominent living American authors, who has largely made his reputation by writing blistering attacks on America's foibles and its mores, finally seems to have mellowed. At seventy-five, it only took him fifty years. Indignation, for all the title suggests a novel filled with rage, is more reserved than his incendiary Zuckerman books, and far less raunchy than anything Mickey Sabbath or Alexander Portnoy could muster.
Marcus Messner is the hero of this story. His father is a butcher, which means that Marcus 'grew up with blood with blood and grease and knife sharpeners and slicing machines and amputated fingers or missing parts of fingers on the hands of my three uncles as well as my father and I never got used to it and I never liked it.' He is cocooned within the familiar Rothian family - that is, a strong and opinionated, but loving, father, and a mother who seems to exist as a selfless entity who can only serve. Marcus, like many other male protagonists in Roth's fiction from Neil Klugman onward, is stubborn, intelligent, arrogant and convinced that he is the only person who understands how things really are. Marcus is abrasive and not too appealing, but he is also young and crude and eighteen so excuses are in order. Roth flies alongside the twin continents of callow and mature, swooping over first to one and then the other, showing us the dark and light of a precocious young man.
At first Marcus is happy to go to college near where his family lives, but soon he is compelled to live far away, moving to the small college town of Winesburg, Ohio. His reason is that his father has become unreasonable, a paranoid, frightened, angry patriarch trying to control his son when all his son wants to do is be left alone to study. The new college brings its own share of problems, from a too-experienced young student, Olivia, to the concerned Dean of Men, Dean Cauldwell, who sees the immaturity of Marcus for what it is, but who is also unable to combat Marcus' frantic, arrogant arguments. Difficulties, as they do, ensue, and Marcus is left to rage from one problem to another. But the plot, though it is strong, plays a softer fiddle to the cacophony of Marcus' anger. Again and again, Marcus seethes on to the page, he lashes and snarls at his father, his mother, his is-she-or-isn't-she girlfriend, his university, his dean, his roommates and himself.
Early on Roth reveals a tantalizing hint Marcus Messner has, for all his stubborness, and in direct realization of his father's worries, died. We don't know how, but it is soon made clear that he is speaking to us from beyond the grave. 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. The sentence is a mouthful, but it is intriguing what happened? By removing the suspense of the character's possible death to the curiosity of how he died, Roth adds a layer of interest to the story. For all Marcus' blustering arrogance, for all his constant arguing and self-righteous complaining, we know that somewhere, somehow, he was wrong and everyone else was right. The Indignation, it would seem, is not his at all but his parents, who can only shake their head at how right they were.
The novel is the sort where the only character who smokes, and who coughs horribly because of it, winds up with emphysema. There is a sense of inevitability surrounding the progression of the plot, with the first few pages effectively outlining the remainder of the novel. This technique is not a flaw, and is one that Roth has used to great effect in American Pastoral and, to a lesser extend, The Anatomy Lesson. This forces the novel to rely on the strength of its characters and the force of the indignation surrounding Messner's rebellion against his family and college. The anger this time stems from intellectual dissatisfaction for all that there is a girl with a predilection for oral satisfaction, this is not a particularly sexual novel. Mickey Sabbath and Alexander Portnoy were sexual fiends, Nathan Zuckerman and Coleman Silk were men outraged at the injustice of the social and political mores of America; Marcus Messner is a teenager angry at his parents. A certain restriction of vision has come into Roth's writing, with positive and negative results.
It becomes, as authors age and their status as a writer of significance seems assured, more fashionable to knock them down a few pegs than to continue praising their talent. Philip Roth, perhaps more than any other prominent American author in recent memory, has suffered from this fate. It is true, then, that Indignation is a minor novel when compared to the masterpieces of American Pastoral or The Human Stain, but that is not to say that the novel comes as poor it is simply slight by comparison.
Where the novel fails is not due to Roth's skilful plotting or his strong command of the protagonist. No, the novel's flaw is that this narrative should have been written by a younger man, an author in his late twenties who could channel an outrage closer to his own personal experiences. One of Roth's great strengths is his ability to expertly describe the American male in his current milieu. Alexander Portnoy is a strong character because Roth feels, intimately, the sexual struggle of the 1960s from the point of view of a man in his thirties because that is what he was. The later Zuckerman novels, which see Nathan Zuckerman coping with loss, age, and his prostate, are told with honesty and sincerity because Roth himself is of an age with the character. But Roth is not, and is not even close, to Marcus Messner's age. The novel is technically proficient and even dazzling in places, but it is missing the beating heart that is central to great literature. Indignation is competent and compelling, written by a man who retains much of his literary power in his seventies, but the heart of the novel could have only come from a younger author.
Indignation, when separated from anger or rage, is a lesser emotion. An indignant person seems weaker, somehow, as though they are unable to fully commit themselves to their emotion. Roth's novel is very much like this. At the center of the novel is a word and not a roar, indignation and not fury. Marcus fumes as though he is a lion, but we read him as a cranky boy. Philip Roth has not failed in showing us this character, and he has not failed in his unwinding of the plot, but there is something inevitably small about this novel that presents it in a poor light when compared to his stronger earlier works.