Saturday, September 27, 2008

Enter Ghost

This is from the latest issue of Tehelka


The central characters of Everyman and Exit Ghost, Philip Roth’s two previous books, were both in their seventies and all too aware of their waning mortality. Those yearning for the feisty Roth of old may well perk up to find that the protagonist of his new novel, Indignation, is a 19-year-old college student. However, Roth reveals soon enough that the narrator has died an untimely death; this, then, is a recollection from the afterlife. He could well have called it Enter Ghost.

Indignation – the emotion, not the book – has of course fuelled Roth’s 29-novel career, with most of his work railing against sanctimony, hypocrisy and the smugness of the established order. Indeed, echoes of earlier books resound in the pages of this one: from the condition of the young narrator of Goodbye Columbus to the masturbatory high jinks of Portnoy’s Complaint to the Celine-like rants of Sabbath’s Theatre to the self-serving claustrophobia of campus life in The Human Stain -- among others. If Indignation, despite its strengths, isn’t as stirring a work, it’s because the writing comes across as whimsical and even odd in places. Not to mention the structure, which tends to totter.

The novel is set in the early Fifties, the time of America’s Korean War. This isn’t an alternative-history scenario as in The Plot Against America, but rooted in the reality of the time. It relates the tale of Marcus Messner, who escapes from his overprotective father’s butcher shop in Newark, New Jersey, to study at a college in Winesburg, Ohio. (Winesburg, that site of stunted American emotion in Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 novel.) Marcus is, as he modestly puts it, a “prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student,” and soon finds himself standing out because of his Jewishness and being at odds with the “constricting rectitude”, compulsory chapel attendance and arrogance of his room-mates.

Marcus’ indignation at the state of affairs peaks during an interview with the college dean, during which he’s moved to quote from large sections of Russell’s ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’. Matters reach a head with the insurrection of a section of the male students who conduct an enthusiastic ‘panty raid’ during a snowstorm, creating an atmosphere that will lead to Marcus’ expulsion. (As should be clear by now, the book has more light-hearted moments than the grim Everyman and elegiac Exit Ghost.)

“All that is solid melts into air” was how the Communist manifesto described the contradictions of capitalism; in Indignation, all that is solid melts into liquid. The novel is full of human stains: the blood in a butcher’s shop as well as in the trenches of war; the vomit spewed by the queasy protagonist as a stand-in for bile when interrogated by the college dean; and, of course, the semen swallowed by Olivia, Marcus’ neurotic almost-girlfriend and fellow student, as well as ejaculated by the high-spirited undergraduates.

Those who look for it will probably find a connection between America’s war then and America’s war now, although Indignation doesn’t belabour the issue. The point driven home instead is that Marcus’ controlling father was right all along: in life, “the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences”. Leaving poor Marcus “replete with frustration, buffeted by the merciless encounter between the no-longers and the not-yets,” as Roth wrote of Nathan Zuckerman in his alter ego’s swan song.

There’s no gainsaying, however, that Indignation doesn’t feel complete as a novel; there’s a definite sketchiness about some parts, while others seem forced. Despite this, there are powerful passages: the descriptions of working in a butcher’s shop and bartending in a local inn, or the college president’s holier-than-thou oration, for example. It’s these, coupled with Roth’s intermittently vigorous sentences, that see the book through to the finish line.

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