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American Psyche

Philip Roth’s latest protagonist—a teenager—has some adjustment issues

David L. Ulin
September 19, 2008

Here’s a question raised by Philip Roth’s new novel, Indignation: Where does it fit into his body of work?

Indignation takes place in the early 1950s on the campus of Winesburg College in Winesburg, Ohio—yes, we are to believe, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—a tradition-bound school not unlike Bucknell, where Roth spent his undergraduate years. The novel is narrated by Marcus Messner, in some sense a typical Roth protagonist: a nineteen-year-old son of Jewish Newark who transfers to Winesburg after his father, a kosher butcher, begins to hound him obsessively and fearfully about the dangers of adult life. For Marcus, Winesburg is his shot at independence, but no sooner has he arrived than he discovers that the school is fraught with subterranean intrigues, with nuances a sheltered kid like him cannot perceive. Very quickly, he sheds two roommates and falls for the WASPy Olivia Hutton, a suicidal beauty with a scar on her wrist and a flair for fellatio. He also comes up against the dean of men, a model of Midwestern Christian temperance.

In the dean—indeed, in the very atmosphere of Winesburg—Marcus teases out a thread of anti-Semitism. “More than a few times during the first weeks,” he reflects about his weekend job waiting tables in a college tavern, “I thought I heard myself being summoned to one of the rowdier tables with the words ‘Hey, Jew! Over here!’ But, preferring to believe the words spoken had been simply ‘Hey you! Over here!’ I persisted with my duties, determined to abide by the butcher-shop lesson learned from my father: slit the ass open and stick your hand up and grab the viscera and pull them out; nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done.”

Still, as much as Marcus feels judged or out of place, this is a chimera, for Jewishness is little more than a sidelight in the book. Rather, Roth has in mind something more elusive: to look at the duplicity of our institutions—family, education, society itself—and explore how, in the face of that, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by “the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.” And herein lies a clue to our initiating question: Indignation is neither a throwback to Roth’s earlier writing nor a departure from what we have come to expect of him; rather, it is the latest expression of a shift that began to mark his work in the 1990s.

Sometime over the last two decades, Roth’s image shifted in the public mind. Regarded since the 1959 publication of his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, as a quintessential Jewish-American writer, the 1990s saw him emerge as a decidedly American writer, one who took on broader, more collective themes.

Most attribute this to the publication of what became known as his American trilogy: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. In fact, though, the process was more gradual than one might assume. In his 1986 novel The Counterlife, Roth overtly reckoned with the intersection of the individual and the wider world—in this case, the relationship of his fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman not just to his Jewishness, but to how that Jewishness marks him in the disparate historical and social landscapes of London, Israel, and New York.

Nevertheless, The Counterlife was still very much consumed by that grand Rothian obsession—identity, the question of who we are and how we play ourselves, the way the stories we tell become inextricably woven into the fiber of our beings. All of this changed markedly with the 1997 release of American Pastoral, a book Roth had been thinking about for a generation or more.

“At a certain age,” Roth explained to me in a 2004 interview, “I was able to look back at decades, and see that I had lived through what’s called American history. American Pastoral came out of notes I’d made some fifteen, maybe twenty, years earlier at the end of the Vietnam War.”

American Pastoral, which dealt with a middle-class daughter’s descent into violent political radicalism, was followed by I Married a Communist, set during the McCarthy era, and The Human Stain, which framed the Clinton impeachment summer as emblematic of an ongoing strain of American Puritanism, played out as part “of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism—which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country’s security—was succeeded by cocksucking.” This is classic Roth, the conflation of the sexual and the ethical, but the vision in The Human Stain was expansive, a cultural rather than a personal point-of-view.

The apotheosis of this shift, I believe, was reached with The Plot Against America, which, appearing in the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign, imagined an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh had been elected to the White House in 1940 and entered a loose alliance with Nazi Germany—an irresistible allegory for anyone looking to draw connections between literature and contemporary life.

Roth, of course, denied these associations, arguing that he’d begun working on The Plot Against America too early—at the start of the Bush administration—to have any such agenda in mind. But while I’m willing to believe that these intentions were not conscious, allegory is in fact what he has been producing for many years. How else are we to read the American trilogy if not as an elaborate allegory for the failure of America’s egalitarian promise, for the hypocrisies and divisions (political, social, moral) that continue to tug at the American soul? How else do we confront the “what if?” of The Plot Against America except as a fantasia of our most nativist tendencies spiraling out of control?

Even the least political of Roth’s recent work has its allegorical underpinnings, and, in fact, it could be argued that his entire career embodies the push and pull between the Puritans and the rest of us, between what Roth describes in his 2001 novel The Dying Animal as “godly virtue and right reason” on the one hand and “misrule” on the other. And yet, Roth wants us to consider, why are these the choices? “Why is it rule and misrule?”

The title of Roth’s latest novel serves as a directive. This is a book, he means to tell us, about a state of being; it’s not so much Marcus’ story as it is the record of his reaction to events. It is, in its way, an allegorical construct, a cautionary tale about what happens when something gets the best of us.

And yet, the title also encapsulates the essential flaw of the novel, which is that, whatever Roth’s intentions, the stakes this time out are simply too low. His narrator here is not only nineteen but a young nineteen, so lacking in experience that when he has his first sexual encounter, his response is not elation but incomprehension. “How could such bliss as had befallen me also be such a burden?” Marcus wonders. “I who should have been the most satisfied man in all of Winesburg was instead the most bewildered.”

Even more bewildering is a summons from the dean, who calls Marcus into his office to discuss his inability to adjust to Winesburg’s campus life. This is the kind of tour de force set piece at which Roth excels—think of the El Al hijacking in The Counterlife, or the retirement community concert at the start of Patrimony—and yet here there is a careening quality to the action, as if the writing were not fully under control. Marcus questions the dean’s assumptions about his heritage, then harangues him on free will and the fallacy of religion, quoting Bertrand Russell‘s “Why I Am Not a Christian” to this most Christian of men. It’s a moment ripe for humor, and yet Marcus cannot see the irony of his position, the ridiculousness of the situation in which he finds himself. He is too…indignant. In this version of the struggle between Thomas Morton and the Puritans, the Morton stand-in is a straw man, a pale reflection, unable to sustain the allegorical weight.

There’s one more reason Marcus lacks the force to support Indignation‘s intentions: death. This is the other great subject of Roth’s later work, also going back to The Counterlife, a novel in which he kills Zuckerman in one section and brings him back to life in the next. The best parts of The Human Stain and The Dying Animal deal directly with the subject—”In every calm and reasonable person,” declares David Kepesh in the latter, “there is a hidden second person scared witless about death”—and Everyman is transfigured by it, into a fugue on mortality and futility, the cold emptiness of the abyss.

And yet, if death plays a part in Indignation also, it exists primarily as an abstraction, especially when Roth deals with it head on. Marcus is worried about Korea, terrified that he might lose his deferment and have to go to war. This is the specter that hovers over him, that hovers over all the young men in the novel, but perhaps because Marcus is so inexperienced, it never seems entirely real. As if to mitigate this, Roth works in an oddly hallucinatory (even otherworldly) framing device, but without giving anything away, it only distances us further from the emotional center of the book.

What makes Roth brilliant, after all, is his willingness to go after the thing itself, whether it is the collapse of American destiny or the more personal collapse of each life toward the grave. His best work is an attempt to assert the primacy of the individual, no matter how fleeting, in the face of dissolution and death. If we have only one life, why live it in shackles? Why not—like Zuckerman or Thomas Morton—stand up to convention and make a more authentic reckoning with the world?

This is the thread that runs throughout Roth’s fiction, and it becomes explicit in the “Historical Note” with which he closes Indignation, a brief coda linking the events of the novel to “the social upheavals and transformations and protests of the turbulent decade of the 1960s,” which eventually come to “hidebound, apolitical Winesburg,” as indeed they must. On the one hand, Roth appears to be making a point about fallout, reminding us that even a story told in such a minor key as this one has ramifications we might not readily see. At the same time, he’s returning to the topic of his major conflict, the tension between obedience and freedom, between “right reason” and “misrule.” It is a failure of the novel that Roth feels he has to do this; better, I’d suggest, that the narrative stand or fall on its own. But in the end, this may be less a matter of intention than of execution, which makes it an allegory of an entirely different sort.

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, and editor of Another City: Writing from Los Angeles and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology.