Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Philip Roth, _Indignation_

WE'VE BEEN HERE before -- late 1940s Newark...Weequahic High...devoted, loving, but too-closely-hovering high maintenance parents...college in the midwest...head-butting with the authorities...not to mention the high-strung, sexually adventurous shiksa...but, you know, if I really minded Roth's tendency to re-juggle a few elements to create variations on his/Portnoy's/Zuckerman's/Tarnopol's bildungsroman, I would have stopped reading him long ago.  In fact, I mind not at all.  I just hope he keeps doing it.

Marcus Messner has come west to get out from under the oppressive, near-neurotic watchfulness of his kosher butcher father and finds himself at Winesburg College in -- well, Ohio, where else?  Not being the reader that Roth or Zuckerman is -- like Portnoy, he leans more to the lawyerly, with a penchant for rights, liberty, and justice -- Marcus does not mention Sherwood Anderson, but he is as incongruous and unassimilable a presence on campus as  he would be in Anderson's collection of linked stories.  

To judge from Roth's memoir The Facts, he himself had a great experience at Bucknell -- fun-loving fraternity brothers, doting English faculty, generous girlfriend, indulgent landlady -- but nothing goes right for Marcus.  Bad roommates, awful off-campus job, rapidly-escalating arguments with deans that end in sudden vomiting and being rushed to the hospital -- even the oral sex spontaneously and abruptly performed on him during a first date ends up simply causing him more grief.  His fraternity brothers set him up with a scheme to get him out of compulsory chapel that backfires, getting him kicked out of Winesburg, only to be drafted, only to be sent to Korea...

...where he dies.  He is dying over the course of the narrative, apparently, "under morphine," as a chapter title tells us, being desperately worked on by medics as his memories of college unspool.  He doesn't make it.

The novel's most dramatic event,  though, is a panty raid at Winesburg, a snowball fight that releases just enough young male frustration that it intensifies, accelerates...errr, snowballs into a dionysian, hormone-fueled descent on the women's dorms, vandalism, outrages, police, etc. The ringleaders are swiftly expelled.  

An epilogue titled "Historical Note"  contrasts the severe, remorseless, and even (given the draft) potentially fatal punishment given the panty raiders to the half-hearted resistance put up to campus protesters a generation later. Is Roth belatedly indignant about authority's soft hand with the Viet Nam protesters of the late 1960s?  I'm reluctant to think so -- there was no soft hand evident at Kent State, also in Ohio -- but on the evidence of American Pastoral, he doesn't take that generation as seriously as it takes itself.  The college president's post-debacle address to the student body (217-24) is richly indignant, and while reading it, I shared his indignation -- as I did Marcus's, and Marcus is one tightly-coiled spring of indignation, ready to jump out of himself and ricochet all over the room.

Indignation may be the watchword of late Roth, even more than is the drumbeat of memento mori in the The Dying Animal, Everyman, and Exit Ghost.  Exit Ghost sticks in the memory as much for Zuckerman's Election Day 2004 indignation as for anything else, and The Plot Against America is, as just about everyone noticed, as much about the Bush administration as it is about alternate history.  The rage in late Roth is not against the dying of the light but against the criminals in power who have disgraced this country that Roth, in his Rothian way, loves.