Philip Roth's Indignation.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 15 2008 7:20 AM

Philip Roth's Nightmare

And you thought Jewish repression was bad …

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To some extent, Marcus' situation is generalized: Toward the end of the novel there is a "panty raid," in which frustrated frat boys attack the women's dorms, masturbate into the panties of the terrified young women, and, in general, rebel against all the strictures of the school. The enraged college president, though ultimately a lampoonable martinet for Roth, delivers a speech that gives voice to a recurrent Rothian theme: "Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear." This might be any number of Jewish parents in any number of his novels speaking of the 6 million to chasten the carnal needs of a maturing adolescent.

Indignation makes plain just how much of Roth's fiction, however clothed in history or politics, is a sort of elaboration of Civilization and ItsDiscontents. Repression is bad and the release of repression is bad. The narrator sounds like a medieval chronicler writing about bubonic plague as he describes the widespread effects on campus of sexual frustration, which "set strapping young men to hobbling about like cripples until the searing, stabbing, cramping pain of the widespread testicular torture known as blue balls would slowly diminish and pass away." But release is not relief, as Roth makes clear; the panty raid is hardly a noble revolt.

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What intensifies the nightmare quality of Roth's recent fiction is that Jewish repression has been transferred into the hands of the Christian America into which Roth's hapless heroes flee for refuge. The Marcus family deals in kosher meat, that living symbol of the Law. ("Renunciation is all, cries the koshered and bloodless piece of steak" on the Portnoy dinner table.) But it is Christian Olivia, crushed by an oppressive WASP world, who attempts suicide by draining out her blood: "Had she succeeded," Marcus tells us, "she would have rendered herself kosher in accordance with rabbinical law."

In other words, Christian America turns out to be a kosher world writ large.

This is a private hell for Marcus Messner, but I suspect that the misrepresentation of kosher law, linked preposterously to self-slaughter, is not just a symptom of Marcus' bitter, death-induced derangement. I can't help feeling that Roth is having a Judeo-Christian nightmare, possibly intensified by the rise of evangelical Christianity in America, which turns precious Rothian fluids into human stains. Or that he has discovered that since American culture has Jewish genes, there is for him no escape from the yoke of the Law.

But I'm not sure. There are, I find, several difficulties in attempting to read Roth accurately, though aesthetically he is certainly easy enough to read, so assured is his narrative voice. Some of the confusion is the fruitful ambiguity of a master of ambivalence, a writer who has been for much of his career a sort of puritanical libertine, full of hunger and self-recrimination. But it isn't always easy to know what is irony, what is postmodern sleight of hand, and what is literary failing.

His characters, physically evoked with such mimetic ease, are often more symbol than body—the suddenly paranoid father or beautiful, afflicted Olivia—rendering them strangely diaphanous. One might say the burden of creating the veil of appearance in order to rip it aside is wearisome, or that this is a postmodern novel, or that many characters in Roth's novels are like the imaginary friend in the film A Beautiful Mind: We accept the verbally incarnated character until later, when we suddenly realize—of course—it was a figment, not, in fact, believably drawn but simply useful in illuminating a single troubled consciousness.

The built-in protection against our ever wholly passing judgment is that the narrator is often a writer himself who may be deceiving us with art. Marcus isn't a writer, and yet by dint of being dead he becomes one: A condition of death, we are informed, at least for Marcus, is endlessly revisiting the elements of one's earlier life. Whether this offers a chance for a sort of verbal redemption or is, in fact, a form of damnation is perhaps the darkest of Roth's ambiguous jokes at his own—and the reader's—expense.

Jonathan Rosen is the editorial director of Nextbook and the author, most recently, of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature.

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