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Review: Indignation

Philip Roth's book Indignation offers us as much the helplessness of the old as the wholesomeness and wholesome folly of youth.

books Updated: Oct 22, 2008 17:33 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Book: Indignation
Author: Philip Roth
Publication: Johnathan Cape
Price: * Rs 772 * PP 233

An intimation of mortality lies like a grim shadow over Philip Roth’s recent work. Few have written with such precision and acuity about the dimming of powers, meditated so engagingly on infirmity, ageing and death.

The defiant, anguished howl against decay that sounded through Sabbath’s Theatre (1995) has been gradually transmuted into a chilling, visceral exploration of gradual, inevitable dwindling. Even as late as The Dying Animal (2001), David Kepesh thinks of “sex as the revenge on death”.

In Everyman (2006), Roth writes: “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” Everyman opens at the funeral of its protagonist, and closes with his death on the operating table. Was it logical that Roth would follow his central character to beyond the grave?

In Indignation, his remarkable — and remarkably, darkly funny — new novel, he does just that. Marcus Messner, the narrator, is dead. He has been killed in action in the Korean War. But rather than being liberated from life by death, he is doomed to trying to make sense of his brief, bewildering nineteen years of life, and attempting to explain to himself why what happened did, and why what might have, did not: “Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae? … Or can it be that this is merely the afterlife that is mine, and as each life is unique, so too is each afterlife…?”

Here is what Messner mucks over — his childhood as the son of a kosher butcher in Newark, New Jersey; his father’s overly protective love for him and paranoia for his safety; escaping all that to a college in Ohio; falling in love with a bewitching, mentally unstable girl; being expelled from college; and being drafted for the war.

Given that this is Roth (his breakthrough novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, has been described as “maybe the only great masturbation novel” — but one that comes nowhere close to his greatest books), there is no surprise that the plot turns on an incident of fellatio, and a crazily, misguidedly subversive, richly humorous raid by male college students on their women peers’ dormitories to seek out and through out their (specifically) white panties through windows into the snow. We’ve been here before with Roth.

Just as we have with many of the other themes that run through the novel: domineering, anxious father versus stifled son; wealthy, well-connected white American girl versus bright Jewish boy on the make; anger versus restraint (there, that’s a nod to the title): all comprising a sort of absorbing, self-referential dialogue with his own backlist. But as always with Roth — as, indeed, with life — we are never in the same place twice in quite the same way. His admirers will recognise the themes, but they will also thrill to the way in which Roth has given them an urgent reworking.

While Indignation is a logical consummation of his more recent preoccupation with decline and death, it is also a celebration — in the manner of his earlier novels — of youth, and its unique frustrations and joys. Longing for a young woman he cannot have, Nathan Zuckerman, the ageing, impotent and incontinent narrator of Roth’s 2007 novel, Exit Ghost, says: “…I experienced the bitter helplessness of a taunted old man dying to be whole again.”

Indignation offers us as much the helplessness of the old as the wholesomeness — and wholesome folly — of youth. “Memories of the past,” Roth once said, “are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts.” Just past his 75th birthday, Roth has been doing this imagining of a past (his own, and America’s) over 29 books for nearly half a century now.

He remains, on current form, America’s greatest living novelist. And the greatest living writer in the English language to have not won the Nobel Prize. Every book that he publishes, he says, will be his last. For his readers, merely the arrival of a new one, even if it doesn’t rank among his very best, is reason enough to celebrate.