The first two Philip Roth books I read were Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater. These make for a rather abrupt introduction, but Roth quickly became my favorite from the post-war generation of American authors. My favorites swaths of Roth are the early, pre-Portnoy works and the late Zuckerman (starting with American Pastoral and moving forward), although I also quite enjoy the early Zuckerman works. I haven’t been all that pleased with his recent work; Dying Animal is solid enough, but as the best of his post 2000 work it leaves much to be desired. Life intrudes, and I’ve been slow to pick up his most recent works. A couple months ago, however, I cranked up the trusty Kindle for iPhone app and attacked Indignation. It went… okay.
Roth is at his most satisfying when he successfully subsumes his plottish concerns into character construction. American Pastoral, for example, doesn’t bother to rant at the excesses of the New Left; rather, it dwells on how Swede Levov tried to negotiate the exceedingly difficult family terrain of the late 1960s. It shows Roth’s disdain for the politics of revolution, but doesn’t waste time telling us what he thinks. Similarly, Sabbath’s Theater is a much more compelling novel than the Human Stain, even as both are preoccupied with the pieties of leftish academic culture. The former internalizes the critique within the character of Mickey Sabbath, while the latter relies on a much more plottish set of events in order to tell its story. Unsurprisingly, I found The Plot Against America virtually unreadable, as Roth abandons character in favor of plot.
Indignation does a reasonably good job of maintaining focus on the character of Marcus Messner. The plot unfolds as a consequence of Messner’s personality disagreements with his father, his roommates, his girlfriend, and his Dean. Apart from the bizarre and not-terribly-necessary character of Flusser, the authorial interventions are kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, I found the novel unsatisfying on a couple of levels. First, I just wasn’t sure that I had a handle on Messner. His argument with the Dean about Bertrand Russell was undoubtedly entertaining, but it was also quite surprising; nothing about the character to that point had really indicated that he (spoiler alert!) was the sort to yell at his Dean about Bertrand Russell for fifteen minutes then throw up his lunch. Revealing different facets of a character halfway through a novel is fine, but after that scene I felt like I knew less about Messner, not more.
Second, I’m just not certain that Indignation covered much in the way of new ground. This is an odd critique; Roth’s best work has always been somewhat limited in scope (indeed, I think it has greatly profited from such limitation). Still, there didn’t really seem to be much here that Roth hadn’t covered better in other places. The path of Roth’s career (and his relationship with Nathan Zuckerman) has been interesting in that it has tended to remain resolutely focused on experience and locality; even Human Stain and I Married a Communist are told through Zuckerman, even as they have relatively little to do with him. American Pastoral is the same way; Roth is interpreting Zuckerman’s interpretation of the forty year old experiences of an old friend. Indignation remains true to the Newark Jewish scene (and returns to the tension between that scene and the Midwest), and is, in staging, a throwback to Roth’s 60s novels. It just doesn’t tell us much more about that scene than Portnoy’s Complaint. Messner isn’t Portnoy, to be sure, but the comparison doesn’t particularly work to his advantage. In its best moments the novel does productively play up the Newark-boy-in-Ohio tension, but beyond the use of Anderson’s Winesburg as setting, this doesn’t amount to much more than a fish-out-of-water narrative.
The two novels that Indignation reminded me of the most are Plot Against America (which it certainly exceeds), and (believe it or not) Stephen King’s Hearts In Atlantis. The latter (apart from the first novella, from which the terrible movie was made) covers much the same plot ground as Indignation (young men, terrified of dying in an Asian land war, struggle through college) but does a better job of conveying both the raw terror of the draft and of the resignation in which many approached it. This may simply be because I’m more attuned to think about the nexus of college and military draft in the context of the Vietnam War, but it may also be because King simply had a better sense of letting the story go where it would.