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INDIGNATION is a bizarre and frightening read. It’s
uncomfortable. Its semi-jokes evoke mostly nervous laughter. In
this surreal and deadly serious work, Philip Roth speaks of
bewildered youth in the context of an even more bewildered America
--- an America afraid of everything, outraged by every deviation
from a cherished norm more fantasy than reality. And though set in
1951, the tragedy of ultra-naïve Marcus Messner’s
adolescence is plenty contemporary; those who doubt the comparison
can try to explain the ire of our country --- while drenched in the
blood of its own war --- at a televised exposed nipple.

Marcus’s father, formerly a brave and proud kosher
butcher, family man and community fixture, has become obsessed
ad absurdum with the safety of his son. In his delusions
of never-ending threats, all roads lead to doom. This maddened
paternalism drives Marcus from his home --- lest his father drive
him mad too --- and he journeys all the way to middle-of-nowhere
Winesburg College in Winesburg, Ohio. (If you’re wondering if
this is a reference to Sherwood Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO, a
novel about individuals trapped in stasis by their own
“grotesque” flaws, rest assured it is. Not only does
Marcus take a job at the Willard Inn, but the thematic connections
soon become obvious, and INDIGNATION benefits from the

Winesburg is a college more concerned with protecting its
deadened conservatism than educating students, and it is here that
Marcus collides with a series of baffling and infuriating
characters, all of whom seem to him obstacles on his road to
getting straight A’s so he doesn’t get kicked out of
school, drafted and killed in the Korean War. No, that’s not
an exaggeration; that’s the reality of Marcus’s thought
process, with more than a hint of his father’s paranoia. His
neuroticism is on par with Woody Allen’s, though in
INDIGNATION it is much grimmer. Completely unprepared for these
confrontations, made ignorant by a society unable to educate him,
he can approach his challenges only tangentially.

As a result, he becomes alienated from his life, as much of an
outsider to it as we are (a point made only stronger by the
realization that he is recollecting these events after his own
death in a nether-space where memory is the sole dimension). He
shuns socialization of any sort lest it interfere with his work. He
gloriously bungles a promising romance out of more obligation than
willful respect of his place in society. In short, he is an
allegory for all the ways that American youth, even with everything
in its favor, can spectacularly fail to learn a modicum of real

Roth uses stylistic tactics similar to his recent novel, THE
HUMAN STAIN, in which he slowly stokes our own righteous
indignation, lets it build to a rabid blaze, and then extinguishes
it with the cold realization that our emotionalism makes us no
better than the characters who enrage us so. Marcus’s
confrontations --- all his social interactions are pretty much
confrontations --- easily let us slip into the familiar hatred of
backwards, ignorant small-town 1951. The anti-sexuality protocols,
the mandatory chapel college requirement and, above all, the smug
conservatism --- Roth can drive the reader mad with hate for these
antiquated fools, and in so doing points out that their McCarthyite
indignation is well alive today, even among those who think they
know better. INDIGNATION reveals one of America’s most
uncommon and unsettling character traits: its unbridled fanaticism,
often manifested as the righteous anger of crusaders. Only in a
country so alienated from itself can such a multi-faceted outrage
emerge as one of our dominant cultural emotions, as Roth’s
characters painfully show us.

This alienation is furthered by the book’s peculiar tone:
bleak and slightly otherworldly, surreal and self-consciously
literary. Marcus’s recollections are direct but distant from
the events they tell. The characters all speak in more stylized
versions of natural tones (which makes some of the dialogue a
little cringe-inducing, but not in a good way) that convey a sense
of acting out life more than living it. In the context of college
life, the novel’s events build up to a student riot cum panty
raid, and it is in this moment of apeish primitivism that the
students feel most at one with themselves. The college’s
response is typically oblivious: “And so conspicuous was [the
college president’s] abhorrence of ‘rebellious
insolence’ that he might have been enunciating the name of a
menace resolved to undermine not just Winesburg, Ohio, but the
great republic itself.”

What may be best about INDIGNATION is its ambiguity. For such an
emotionally charged book, it is almost entirely free of
Roth’s stated opinions beyond his valuable nuggets of
cultural analysis. He lets his America speak for itself, and while
he makes no attempts to explain how our culture came to be the
madness it is today, he superbly describes its effects and lets
readers draw their own conclusions. INDIGNATION may not be the best
of Roth’s works, but it is a masterful piece --- unusual,
alarming and, most importantly, vital American reading.

Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 22, 2011

by Philip Roth

  • Publication Date: October 6, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307388913
  • ISBN-13: 9780307388919