Beware the glossy college brochure. Those manicured quad lawns, brick buildings, and impossibly coiffed coeds have lured many a hopeful teen. Marcus Messner, the narrator of award-winning author Philip Roth’s new novel, Indignation, is merely one of the more unwary.
Marcus is a college freshman who used to be happy living at home in Newark, N.J., and helping out in his dad’s butcher shop. Then the United States gets involved in the Korean War, and Marcus’s dad becomes terrified that his son is going to die.
“It’s about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences,” he rants to his son after searching for Marcus at a pool hall. (Marcus was studying late at the library, to better maintain his 4.0 average.)
After his dad’s rant, Marcus “ran out of the house, wondering where [he] could find a car to steal to go to Scranton to play pool....”
Roth does a wonderful job of describing the trench warfare that becomes Marcus’s relationship with his dad.
Overwhelmed by fear, his dad treats his arrow-straight boy like a juvenile delinquent. (His mother pleads with her husband not to destroy their family with his paranoia, but it’s futile.)
If there’s anything that sets teenagers quivering with outrage, it is unfairness, and Marcus reacts predictably – scurrying as far away from Newark as his limited resources will allow. That turns out to be a small, conservative college in Ohio.
“So as to be free of my father, I’d chosen a school 15 hours by car from New Jersey ... but with no understanding on my part of the beliefs with which youngsters were indoctrinated as a matter of course deep in the heart of America.”
Before arriving at Winesburg College, Marcus spends his time staring at the brochure (he even buys himself the outfit the boy on the cover is wearing), and neglects to notice the mandatory chapel requirement.
So, the avowed atheist finds himself fuming in a pew, mentally reciting the Chinese national anthem over and over again. Rather than chuckling at his own stupidity and just sneaking in a book, Marcus goes on a crusade against the chapel requirement and the entire Christian religion.
(The novel is set in 1951, not 1969, so readers will have a pretty fair idea of the probability of Marcus’s toppling this particular windmill.)
Marcus is also one of the few Jewish students on campus, and, despite his desire to focus just on his studies, he finds himself being courted by the only Jewish fraternity.
There’s a bit of friction with an overly dramatic roommate, but Marcus is settling in all right until he goes out on his first date. (This being a Roth novel, sex plays a pivotal role in Marcus’s downfall.)
Marcus is pretty candid with readers early on that they’re looking at a tragedy: He’s dead, he explains, although he’s not sure for how long.
He certainly wasn’t expecting an afterlife, and has nothing to do but ruminate on the events of his corporeal existence.
“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.