September 21, 2008 in Features

‘Indignation,’ though small, speaks volumes

Dennis Persica
 

Marcus Messner, the narrator and protagonist of Philip Roth’s latest novel, “Indignation,” is the well-behaved son of a Jewish family of modest means in Newark, N.J.

Roth’s regular readers will recognize this setup, used in “Goodbye, Columbus” and “The Plot Against America,” to give just two examples. It’s a well-trodden path for the author, who grew up in Newark himself.

Messner is the son of a kosher butcher. When the butcher becomes obsessed with his son’s well-being, Messner transfers to a college in Ohio to get away from his father’s smothering anxieties.

This is not a “big” book, either in physical size or in themes. In 233 pages, it has the narrative arc of a short story, not a sweeping novel. Messner’s experiences – mostly from late high school and into college – make up the entire scope of the story.

About 50 pages in, Messner surprisingly reveals something about himself. Since it’s a surprise, I won’t tell you what it is. But the revelation makes the rest of the book almost like a mystery, as the reader searches for clues to figure out what it is that brings Messner to this state.

“Indignation” is reminiscent of “Everyman,” another small book that is part of Roth’s recent work.

In both, the story is highly focused and hardly veers from the life of its main character. Yet within that tightly coiled story, much is said about the human condition and the small indignities people suffer through as they go about living their lives.

And while “Indignation” is focused on the life of Marcus Messner, like many of Roth’s novels it does not ignore the politics of the world around it.

The story opens with Messner pointing out that he entered college “about two and a half months after the well-trained divisions of North Korea, armed by the Soviets and Chinese Communists, crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea.” The possibility of losing a college-student draft deferment and being sent to the war is a threat that looms overhead for most male college students.

Roth does not ignore the irony of the fact that America’s onetime ally in World War II had become its mortal enemy just a few years later. That irony is part of the Cold War insanity – insanity which, though it played out on a worldwide scale, could still reach down and ensnare small, seemingly insignificant people like Marcus Messner, the kosher butcher’s son from Newark.

Dennis Persica writes for Newhouse News Service.

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