Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reasons to be Indignant [A Book Review]

A novel by Philip Roth
Published September 2008

Roth's most recent novel tells a story that approaches its title-subject in a tragic Shakespearean way, but this tale of youth suffers from a split focus and a myriad of other less severe but still nagging problems. 

Indignation details the life of Marcus Messner, a nineteen-year-old Jewish boy, from his own perspective after his death. Marcus is a college boy from Newark who is initially suffering under his father's unrelenting parental thumb, a new development that Marcus is desperate to escape. He later manages to leave home for Winesburg College in Ohio where he meets several people including the flawless Sonny Cottler, the bothersome College Dean Cauldwell, and his troubled love interest, Olivia.  

The reader is initially unaware as to how serious Marcus is to be taken. While it's true that he's a youth, he doesn't appear to be the confused, aimlessly youth from the ilk of Holden Caufield. He is instead a determined, seemingly reliable individual, which makes his obstinence, and naivete that much more surprising when they finally begin to appear during his time at Winesburg. This is due in part to the increased level of interaction that the character has at the college, and thusly a slow reveal of his true character once removed from the parental nest. The issue is that he has so convincingly been portrayed as a character with justifiable causes of anger that his folly is indiscernible until it reaches comic proportions. Once that point has been reached, the reader is hesitant to take the character seriously again, which they seem expected to at several points in the novel. This switching back and forth is less problematic as the novel moves along, but is at the time of the first turn incredibly distracting, and makes difficult to place Marcus' mental maturity. 

The sub-plot of relationship between Marcus and Olivia is something of a major problem. Any good author will use a sub-plot, or character relationships to further emphasise the themes of a novel, either by subtle reiteration or contrast. Marcus' interactions with Olivia take up a significant portion of the book, if not a majority of it. It seems logical that these interactions would play into the final result of the novel. This relationship's fate does echo the overarching theme, but it does so without ever having a direct impact on the events of the novel, and Marcus' fate. If Roth were trying to paint sexuality as another aspect of youthful folly, than it should have played a part in end of the novel as it had every opportunity to. There is little interplay between the relationship, and Marcus' title-worthy indignation-- with so many opportunities for cohesion it's almost insulting that Roth doesn't bring them together. 

Roth's novel is also filled with several moments of extreme melodramatic dialog that's reminiscent of soap opera writing. It may well be that these are elements of the pervading black comedy, but they could equally be unintentional mishaps. The scenes give little indication as to which is the case, but regardless of which it is the reader is likely to burst out laughing. It seems appropriate that Roth should be given the benefit of the doubt. 

The end of Indignation might be something of a disappointment to most. Not only is it a huge Chekhovian-esque scene omission, but it also spills the thematic essence of the novel out for the reader. One is forced to wonder what might have been if Roth has decided to carry his novel to its conclusion, and emphasise his themes and intentions through that rather than presenting them to the reader in a neat, revealing, organized passage. Certainly there would be better places to stop the narrative and keep the finale intact if Roth hadn't cut the events off so shortly. 

The novel isn't without merit, it deals with interesting ideas even if it presents them in a somewhat inefficient way. Additionally, the blend of black comedy and tragedy in the novel will likely be able to keep a readers interest for the meager 231, well-spaced pages. If you can stand the occasional latinate word, or awkward scene thrown at you, it wouldn't be the worst novel to pick up on a rainy day. 


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