Philip Roth's Nightmare
And you thought Jewish repression was bad …
Indignation has been good for Philip Roth. The cry of impotent rage and strangled rebellion that ends Portnoy's Complaint, though it all but kills Portnoy, has fueled one of the great careers in American letters over the past four decades. The hero of Roth's latest novel, Indignation, is not so lucky. He is destroyed almost before he has exited puberty. And so this is one of Roth's counter-life books, where the author seems to be confronting what might have happened had things gone just a little differently for him. Like the hero of Henry James' "The Jolly Corner," who visits the house he once lived in and encounters the wounded specter of the man he might have been had he not left Washington Square and become a novelist, Roth imagines a young man from Newark, N.J., without a writer's aspirations, wit, or imagination—and with extremely bad luck. Though the Korean War lurks in the background waiting to swallow young men, this novel, despite dust-jacket claims, is not really about history and its vicissitudes. It is another in a series of self-portraits in a convex mirror.
From the outset, Indignation has the quality of ghost story, which it technically is, since we are told—this is a very mild spoiler; the news comes on Page 54—that the narrator, Marcus Messner, is dead. How Marcus comes to be dead is partly the story he has to tell. His death is the result of a series of unfortunate events that unfold with a sort of nightmare logic and add to the book's ghostly quality by making tiny moments pregnant with surreal portent.
Marcus, aka Markie, is a nice Jewish boy. He is called nice by everyone, including himself. He works hard; he is a fine student; he is polite; he is a good athlete and the devoted helper of his father, who runs a kosher butcher shop in Newark. These scenes in the butcher shop are rich with the persuasive evocation of Jewish working-class life that is one of the great pleasures of many Roth novels. "Flick two chickens, Markie, will ya, for Mrs. So-and-So?" Roth captures masterfully the strain, intimacy, and familial intensity of urban Jewish postwar striving, with a special place reserved for fathers, who exhibit a particular sort of first-generation manliness, small men with thick forearms damping down emotions and private longings and maybe even terminal illness so that they can lay down the bedrock on which their beloved sons are expected to build bright white-collar American lives.
But when Markie is in the first year of a local Newark college, still living at home and laboring alongside his father in the butcher shop, his father is suddenly overtaken by paranoia and dread for his son, a sense that everything is fragile and that his son is not to be trusted with his own future. A terror that death is lurking everywhere. Oppressed by his father's mania, Marcus transfers to Winesberg College in Ohio.
If Marcus were an aspiring writer, he might have known that Winesburg, Ohio was the name of a famous novel describing stunted, smothered, Midwestern lives. The leafy goyish institution, which from afar seemed like a picture postcard of an American WASP haven, turns out to be a private hell for Marcus, who, for starters, is roomed with three other Jews, one of whom—a theatrical, gay, anarchic student named Flusser—taunts Marcus mercilessly for being dutiful and hardworking. Markus flees to a different dorm and to ever-greater isolation. But when he finally dates Olivia, a beautiful undergraduate with red hair, a history of alcoholism, and an ominous scar on her wrist, everything changes.
A remarkable amount of the plot, both psychologically and narratively, revolves around an unexpected blowjob Marcus receives from Olivia. Though this is not in fact narrated as a comic episode, I kept thinking of a short movie W.C. Fields made in the 1930s called "The Fatal Glass of Beer"—a parody of temperance sermons, among other things. Fields sings a hilarious song about a dutiful boy who leaves home, is tempted by college students into having a single glass of beer, and is comically destroyed. This being a Roth novel, alcohol plays no part—it is the fatal fellatio that ruins the hapless hero. There is no going back to his earlier, dutiful grade-getting, self-abnegating focus.
And so, as in a Kafka story, all the father's irrational fears, from which Markie justifiably fled, are indeed born out. If Marcus could just go with the flow, accept Olivia for who she is, join the Jewish fraternity that keeps wooing him, attend mandatory chapel, and pay whatever lip service is required of him, he would of course be fine. But Marcus will not bow. Always it is Marcus' mounting sense of outrage, his inability to conform (though his entire childhood has been one of conforming, and so it may be his fear of his own propensity for it driving him on), and his need for confrontation that facilitate one blunder after another, as he is pursued by the moralizing dean of students and we realize he is racing inevitably toward expulsion and death.
The novel is not really on Marcus' side, taking an almost sadistic glee in destroying him. The world of the novel operates on the principles of a horror movie—illicit sexual gratification is punished by ghastly death. This is not to say that Roth is on the side of the forces of repression, but he has always been a deeply divided writer, sentimentally enamored of the Newark childhood against which he is endlessly in rebellion. Or perhaps Roth is striving for a sort of mythic structure: Marcus is like Sleeping Beauty—nothing his father does can keep him from the fatal prick, though whether he is awakened or put to sleep or both is ambiguous.
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.
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.