Sunday, March 1, 2009

Indignation by Philip Roth

News came this week that Philip Roth will be releasing not one, but two novels within the next year. Thus continues one of the most prolific streaks for an American writer at the end, and some would say, the summit of his career. Ever since his 1993 work, “Operation Shylock,” Roth has, to put it mildly, been on a hot streak. He’s won virtually every major American fiction prize in the last decade and a half, producing his widely praised “American” trilogy, a follow-up in his Kapesh books, an alternate history of the U.S. during the Second World War, and an end to his nine-volume Zuckerman cycle of novels.

Indignation” bowed last September with a strangely subdued reaction from the critics. Some reflexively praised it, while others felt it didn’t seem to fit in with his recent string of novels. Though there were comic elements, the tone was tragic and its ending hard to decipher. Still others tried, in a tortured fashion, to view its action during the Korean War as yet another indictment of the Bush Administration and the War in Iraq. Roth swatted this away, as he did earlier guesses at what inspired “The Plot Against America:”

"If I wanted it to be about something else, I should have written about something else," he said. "I'm not interested in writing allegories or metaphors." But the author should be the last person trusted with his work.

“Indignation” concerns a young boy - not unlike the narrator of Roth’s first novel, “Goodbye Columbus” - who uses his college education to escape his father, a butcher who believes in the work ethic, and who has a pathological fear of his son throwing his life away carelessly. This is the kind of character who would have been comic earlier in Roth's career, but he takes on a decidedly terrifying, unhinged demeanor as the story progresses. The narrator has internalized his father’s lessons about working hard, but he instead labors to go to a Christian university in Ohio, as far culturally from New Jersey as he can get. It is only about a third of the way into the novel that we discover our narrator, Marcus Messner, is relating his life from 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...Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime's minutiae? Who could have imagined that one would have forever to remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component? Or can it be that this is merely the afterlife that is mine, and as each life is unique, so too is each afterlife, each an imperishable fingerprint of an afterlife unlike anyone else's? I have no means of telling. As in life, I know only what is, and in death what is turns out to be what was. You are not just shackled to your life while living it, you continue to be stuck with it after you're gone. ..Who could have told me? And would death have been any less terrifying if I'd understood that it wasn't an endless nothing but consisted instead of memory cogitating for eons on itself?...It's not memory obliviated here - it's time. There is no letup - for the afterlife is without sleep as well. ... And the judgment is endless, though not because some deity judges you, but because your actions are naggingly being judged for all time by yourself. ...And how much more of my past can I take?"

It’s interesting that Roth's imagined afterlife is surprisingly Christian in some of its overtones, though with the understandable absence of Christ Himself. But the idea here is that we would not need a God to torture us, but would be more than effective and unforgiving as our own judge if we could view our life endlessly and dwell on the missed opportunities, regrets, mistakes, failures. Who needs eternity? We are all pretty effective in the here and now on that score…

Marcus naturally rubs up against sex on campus, then runs afoul of the college president, Lentz, an atypical Roth character. This is an old-school Republican from the Midwest who believes in a heartland Christianity and doesn’t get the kind of come-uppance that one might expect in a Roth novel. Instead, he gets a very long speech near the end of this short book to pass judgment not only on Marcus or his classmates, but we believe, on us:

“Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily - warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all. Well, you won’t be oblivious for long! You can be as stupid as you like, can even given every sign…of passionately wanting to be stupid, but history will catch you in the end. Because history is not the background - history is the stage! And you are on the stage! Oh, how sickening is your appalling ignorance of your own times!…What kind of a time do you think you belong to, anyway? Can you answer? Do you know? Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all?”

There is a strange sense in this novel that I don’t think exists in his other novels of consequence, that actions might reverberate in time and, what is more, eternity. This is not the Philip Roth that inhabits interviews and blithely dismisses the possibility of a life beyond the grave. This voice mocks that one, and from beyond the grave. I don't mean to suggest that Roth has been "born again," obviously. But he does raise the question of what we are to be "indignant" about. Is it that our indignation should be "righteous?" Or is it that the only plausible reaction to righteousness - or self-righteousness - is indignation, even if it leads to self-destruction?

Hard to know what to make of it, indeed. In a final section, "Out From Under," Marcus’ voice ceases and is replaced by a remorseless narrator, passing remorseless judgment over his life and his free-thinking love of Bertrand Russell. We wonder, out from under what? And who exactly is saying this:

“Couldn’t believe like a child in some stupid god!…Couldn’t sit in their hallowed church! And the prayers, those shut-eyed prayers - putrefied primitive superstition! Our Folly, which art in Heaven! The disgrace of religion, the immaturity and ignorance and shame of it all! Lunatic piety about nothing! …had he been able to stomach chapel and keep his mouth shut, (he) would have received his undergraduate degree…and thus have postponed learning what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most brutal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”

When one reads this, one might be tempted to think it a shame that Philip Roth will probably never write about the Crucifixion. He might be one of the few writers capable to doing it justice.

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