Anyone who has read Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain will recall that around halfway through he springs a huge surprise. The central character is not, as we have been led to suppose, white and Jewish. He is in fact black.
Roth’s new novel – his 27th – has a similar coup de théâtre at the heart of it, effectively turning the reader’s assumptions on their head. This poses an awkward problem for the reviewer. Should one reveal the twist and risk being hunted down by infuriated Roth fans? Or is it best to skirt coyly round it? For reasons of consideration – or cowardice – I’m plumping for the latter.
Marcus, Indignation’s teenage narrator, is rooted in familiar Roth territory. He’s raised in the early 1950s in Newark, New Jersey, where his father is a kosher butcher. “I grew up with blood,” as he says – and blood, as well as the instruments used to shed it, forms the leitmotif of the book. This is a world abounding in sharp edges.
Marcus’s father dotes on his only child. However, he becomes fixated on the idea that something terrible is going to happen to him – more specifically, that Marcus will be killed in the Korean War. The boy may be diligent, responsible and teetotal, yet his father is convinced that for Marcus, as for everyone else, disaster is ever-present. Repeatedly and with mounting desperation, he tells him: “The tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences.”
Infuriated by all this possessiveness, Marcus leaves New Jersey and goes off to Winesburg College in rural Ohio. There he is no less diligent, no less responsible than he’s been in Newark. But Marcus is not a mixer; he refuses to join a college fraternity, makes few friends and spends most of his time buried in his law studies.
Yet however much he absents himself from the world, dark fatalistic forces are shaping his destiny. He falls for a fellow student, Olivia, with whom he enjoys some rare moments of accord. Olivia, though, is beset by dark forces herself, as the knife scars on her wrist reveal. Marcus also becomes increasingly aware of his Jewishness and of the undertow of anti-Semitism that permeates college life. Some of this may be paranoia, as he acknowledges, but not all: to be Jewish amid the sporting jocks of Winesburg College in the early 1950s is to be an object of both curiosity and disdain.
Not a great deal happens in Indignation – it’s a very short novel of fewer than 60,000 words. But later on Marcus will have ample opportunity to replay these deliberately spare events in his mind. He will also have cause to reflect on the precariousness of life, the way in which we are buffeted by chance while clinging desperately to notions of self-determination. In the end, Roth is saying, life is just a chapter of accidents – an endless litany of “if onlys” – with some chapters being more randomly curtailed than others.
Here, as everywhere else in Roth, there is ample evidence of his fascination with people’s working lives. Despite the brevity of the book, he still manages to cram in a good deal about the mechanics of butchery. You will, for instance, find a brief but memorably graphic description of how to eviscerate a chicken: “You slit open the ass a little bit and you stick your hand up and you grab the viscera and you pull them out.”
And Portnoy aficionados will be delighted to see that liver makes a reappearance. But whereas in Portnoy’s Complaint the teenage Alexander Portnoy masturbates into a piece of liver, in Indignation – typically – the emphasis is on its more dangerous qualities: Marcus’s mother doesn’t hold a piece of liver firmly enough as she’s slicing it; the knife slips and she cuts herself.
As Roth has grown older – he’s now 75 – this fascination with work has taken on a more manic aspect, rather as though the accumulation of detail can be placed, like so many duckboards, over the abyss below. Like all of his recent novels, Indignation is preoccupied with the imminence, the proximity, of death. Yet for all its morbidity, the book is far from dispiriting. Indeed, it sees Roth showing off his comic flair with rather more gusto than of late.
Roth’s own destiny has seen him forever bracketed with Saul Bellow – the two great chroniclers of urban life in contemporary America. Bellow’s decline could be dated, roughly speaking, from the moment he started writing short novels instead of long ones. However, there’s no sign of any tailing off with Roth. Indignation may not be a major work, but it is richly textured, zips along with immense vigour and packs an ingenious low blow.