Philip Roth's new novel just rails against religion in 1950s America.
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He certainly wasn’t expecting an afterlife, and has nothing to do but ruminate on the events of his corporeal existence.Skip to next paragraph
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“There are no days. The direction (for now?) is only back. 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.”
(By the way, I strongly doubt Roth is making an argument for heaven, since the title of this section is “Under Morphine.”)
Knowing this gives Marcus’s subsequent bumblings a desperate, rather than comic, quality.
On his date with a lovely transfer student named Olivia, Marcus discovers she’s more experienced than he is, and reacts badly.
A naive teenage boy becoming obsessed by a sexual encounter and handling his emotions with something less than aplomb? Nah, it could never happen. In fact, everything about Marcus – from his fights with his dad to his idealistic-to-the-point-of-stupidity self-righteousness rings true.
But the secondary characters are much less noteworthy.
Roth makes Olivia damaged goods – she’s psychologically unstable and tried to kill herself before transferring to Winesburg. (Oh good, let’s revive that cliché.) The most noteworthy thing about her (besides her reputed promiscuity and suicide attempt) is her beauty (of course) and her fawning admiration for Marcus.
The only other woman is Marcus’s longsuffering, hard-working paragon of a mother (who also fawns over Marcus).
There’s also a rather nasty caricature of a homosexual that’s straight out of the 1950s.
With a title like “Indignation,” there’s a pretty good guarantee that you’re not signing up for subtlety.
The novel’s centerpiece quotes extensively from Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” a chunk of which Marcus declaims (in full desk-pounding mode) to the smug dean of students. Russell, a Nobel Laureate, pacifist, and atheist who wasn’t exactly a poster child for family values, doesn’t play well in 1950s heartland Ohio.
Marcus knows this, but he can’t stop himself, even though his greatest fear is getting expelled from college and being sent to the Korean War. (Why a Pulitzer Prize-winning, multiple National Book Award-winning author has to rely on another writer to make his arguments for him is another question.)
The arguments against Christianity will probably strike a reader as more or less persuasive depending on their own views on religion.
Frankly, those are the least interesting part of “Indignation,” although Roth appears to find nobility in Marcus’s unwavering stance, because “he couldn’t believe like a child in some stupid god!”
How we get from there to “putrefied primitive superstition! Our Folly, which art in Heaven! The disgrace of religion, the immaturity and ignorance and shame of it all!” is likely to leave more than a few readers scratching their heads, since Marcus pretty conclusively engineers his own undoing.
Much more compelling are the tragic flounderings of a father and son that seem foreordained to send the boy straight to the fate from which they were intended to save him.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.