My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Les extrêmes se touchent—that is the meaning of this 2008 short novel, the second book in the death-focused Nemeses quartet, Roth’s self-consciously late novellas, culminating his elective final work, Nemesis itself. The deceptively simple (and actually quite intricate) Indignation is much the best of the first three: better than the thinly-imagined and gimmicky Everyman or the self-parodic Humbling.
At first, Indignation seems as if it will be a minor-key recapitulation of the Rothian themes: nostalgia for old-fashioned labor (butchery, in this case) and for postwar Newark; the struggle of the third-generation American Jewish male against both the WASP’s frigidity and repression and his own ethno-religious enclave’s paranoia and conservatism; the delights and terrors of allowing the phallus to express itself; and the overall challenge posed by American individualism to the ethical life and the literary imagination. Even the title itself seems like something that might—were it not for The Anatomy Lesson and The Human Stain and The Dying Animal—double as the name for Roth’s oeuvre as a whole.
The novel is set in the early 1950s. Marcus Messner is the beloved son of a kosher butcher in Newark, and when he begins attending Robert Treat, a small downtown college, his previously stolid father becomes consumed with fear that his son will be corrupted or die. Oppressed by his father’s baseless fears, Messner transfers to Winesburg College, in small-town Ohio, for his sophomore year. He is determined to succeed, even to become valedictorian, so that he can avoid being sent to Korea as a vulnerable infantryman once his college deferment ends. But at the small and traditional liberal arts college, Messner—who had previously been an agreeable, successful student—finds himself in conflict with almost everyone, from his histrionic gay roommate Bertram Flusser in his first all-Jewish dorm-room to the college’s dean of men, who wants Messner to conform more readily to the college’s WASPish traditions. Add to this Marcus’s first significant sexual experience—a blow job from Olivia Hutton, a Sylvia-Plath-like young woman with a history of mental illness, addiction, and, it is quietly implied, incest and sexual abuse—and Messner’s initiation into the pain and complexity of adult life.
As my summary indicates, this short novel traffics overtly in unsubtle and even offensive stereotypes, from the overbearing Jewish father to the hidebound and stuffy Protestant dean of men, from the flamboyantly gay theater-kid Flusser to the damaged WASP co-ed Olivia. That is because Roth’s purpose is to investigate how we become stereotypes of ourselves. If the point of the Zuckerman novels was to explore the endlessly complicated inner life of the American individual behind what could be known or said about him or her in public, the point of Indignation is to emphasize by contrast how readily we swell our personae (Greek for “masks”) into defensive exaggerations (sometimes because, Roth allows, we are defending ourselves against very real threats, as with Olivia, who has been sexually abused, or threatened minority groups in general, such as gay or Jewish people).
As all reviewers note, Roth borrows the name of Winesburg, Ohio from Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 story-cycle of that title. Anderson’s excavation of the buried inner lives of small town America, an early landmark in American modernism that went on to influence Ernest Hemingway, Jean Toomer, William Faulkner, and even Ray Bradbury, provides Roth with a model of how to criticize not only a repressive dominant culture but also the distortions it brings forth in those who rebel against it. Anderson conceived of his novel-in-stories as “The Book of the Grotesque,” and in its preface he tells of an isolated old writer (perhaps like the monkish elderly Roth of the late books) who envisions how people become the exaggerated and distorted figures captured by that word:
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
The collection’s first and most famous story, “Hands,” illustrates how this happens, how truth becomes falsehood as it exceeds its contextual aptness: the story’s protagonist, a dreamy former schoolteacher, becomes reduced (by himself and by others) to the wandering hands that have semi-wrongly stigmatized him as a pederast, despite what should have been the religious dignity and nobility of his pedagogical love for truth and beauty (“The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary”).
Likewise, almost every scene in Indignation sees one character or another replacing his or her complex self with a simplified idea of that self, as if we walked around in armor shaped like caricatures of our own faces and bodies. Marcus’s father allows himself to become nothing but a father, harassed by the loss of that identity that would ensue with the loss of his son; Marcus allows himself, previously a “good boy,” to become a clichéd rebel against both his father and the dean, his own words and thoughts replaced by those of the radical books he’s read as he quotes paragraphs of Bertrand Russell at the dean; Olivia, implicitly reduced to a sexual object by her own father, becomes exaggeratedly sexualized in response (the tragedy of which Marcus never quite grasps but Roth allows us to see over his head, as it were) and is then reduced to this identity even more brutally by the men of the campus. This happens even to very minor characters, such as Marcus’s second roommate: obsessed with his car, he is later killed in it while trying to prove its prowess—this seemingly innocent fixation has consumed and ended his life.
With the novel’s Korean War background, Roth even shows the grotesqueifying process happening at the level of national and ideological identity. Indignation as a title is derived from the Chinese national anthem—
Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!
With our very flesh and blood
We will build a new Great Wall!
China’s masses have met the day of danger.
Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen,
Arise! Arise! Arise!
—which Marcus learned as a boy in school during World War II, when the U.S. was allied with both China and the Soviet Union. Marcus adopts the anthem as his personal theme song while he resists Protestant indoctrination during his time at Winesburg—even though he means these words of collectivism and even communism as badge of individualism, and even though he will later be drafted to fight the communist nation with which his country was once allied.
This political motif allows Roth to go beyond Anderson’s theory of the grotesque, since, for Roth, all grotesques finally become alike. Of his mother’s labor and devotion, Marcus observes:
With her dark bushy eyebrows and coarse gray hair (and, at the store, with her coarse gray clothes beneath a bloody white apron), she embodied the role of the laborer as convincingly as any Soviet woman in the propaganda posters about America’s overseas allies that hung in the halls of our grade school during the years of World War Two.
And near the novel’s conclusion, when the conservative college president, with his national political aspirations, makes a speech to restore order to Winesburg, he expresses himself with the same militarization of sensibility that the novel has so far associated with communism, telling the male students that they will in effect have to make themselves like their enemy if they are to defeat that enemy (“history will catch you in the end,” he tells them, sounding like a good Marxist-Leninist). In other words, by taking ourselves—whether nation or individual—to extremes in an attempt to differentiate ourselves and protect ourselves from each other, we actually reduce and destroy our real differences; we put on one other’s worst characteristics, so that the Protestant Christian traditionalist and the Jewish atheist rebel, the communist and the individualist, the sexual naïf and the sexual cynic, keep flowing into one another.
While this theme is perhaps not handled with as much sensitivity as we might wish in the cases of Flusser and Olivia (though her story, which we can only read between the lines in the Nabokovian manner, is quite poignant), Indignation’s climax—an apocalyptic panty raid during a snow storm—forms the most comprehensive critique of heterosexual male behavior that I have encountered so far in Roth: the men of Winesburg stage a kind of gender pogrom, storming the women’s dorms and invading their rooms and closets and drawers and even masturbating into their undergarments. Roth is obviously critical of the sexual repression of mainstream American society circa 1951, but here he is no less scathing about the counter-(over)reaction it brings forth in these young men and their mob. A “Historical Note” on the novel’s final page recounts a political—rather than sexual—occupation of Winesburg’s administrative offices in 1971 by both male and female students; this act ends the reign of stultifying tradition at the school (“to the horror of no authorities other than those by then retired from administering Winesburg’s affairs”). Roth here tips his hat to the sixties—if he had associated that decade with mindless extremism in American Pastoral, he here shows it to have had other, more humane currents, capable of correcting the fifties’ very different extremisms—of both sexual repression and sexual aggression.
Finally, the novel’s form requires comment. It is largely narrated by Marcus, and he believes—as he reveals a quarter of the way through—that he is commenting from beyond the grave, in a lonely afterlife of endless retrospection. We learn at the end from a third-person voice, however, that Marcus’s narration has actually been a morphine dream as he lay dying in a hospital, killed in the Korean War due to his having been expelled for his infractions from Winesburg shortly before the war’s end (had he graduated on time, he would have missed the fighting entirely; in seeking to defend ourselves, we destroy ourselves). While Marcus never quite comes to understand the meaning of his experiences as thoroughly as Roth will allow the reader to do, his recitation “under morphine” (to quote the chapter title of the novel’s longest section) is one of the hopes the novel holds out for remediating the grotesque human condition: if we can tell our stories with the nuance and complexity and subtlety of this novel, perhaps we will allow ourselves to achieve substantial—rather than merely reactive—dignity, by seeing ourselves as the nuanced, complex, and subtle people that we are.