Monday, December 28, 2009

INDIGNATION by Philip Roth

"We are here to be insulted."--Philip Roth, in conversation with Harold Bloom

I suppose it's time to attempt a nutshelled overview of the career of Philip Roth. First comes the Apprenticeship, a trio of works (Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go, When She Was Good) that obey the rules for midcentury American fiction and establish Roth as an only moderately adventurous member of the School of Bellow. Then, in the Woodstockian year, came Portnoy the Wanker. With Portnoy's Complaint, another Roth emerges, a restless experimenter with no rules and few limits. He transforms a character into a gigantic mammary (The Breast), does a bitter Swiftian satire of the Nixon administration (Our Gang), produces a complex (and still underrated) work of autobiographical metafiction (My Life as a Man), and writes a linguistically exuberant baseball novel (The Great American Novel). The first Zuckerman trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and the epilogue novella The Prague Orgy) constitutes a triumphant synthesis of Roth's traditional and experimental impulses. In the late 1980s Roth inaugurates his second experimental phase, this time blending fiction and autobiography in a series of category-defying works (The Counterlife (the most formally experimental fiction of his career), The Facts, Patrimony, Deception, Operation Shylock). After this period culminated (and fizzled out) in Shylock, Roth shifted gears to produce a one-off, magisterial burst of far-beyond-Portnoyesque outrage, Sabbath's Theater (my candidate for Roth's greatest novel; The Ghost Writer is my candidate for his most perfect book). This is followed by the much-lauded 'American trilogy' (American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Human Stain) three Bellowesque novels that threatened to turn their author into a fatally respectable 'American literary treasure'. Roth responded to the threat with a delightfully lewd novella, The Dying Animal, that marked him as a writer less assimilable than his recent works had made him appear. It also inaugurated the phase of his career that we can now call 'the late novellas' (including Everyman, Exit Ghost, and the subject of this post, Indignation). The obvious joker leering up from the deck of this understanding of Roth's late career is The Plot Against America. It fits my scheme in neither size nor my scheme must be wrong. Time will tell, as it always does.

Roth has always written novellas (e.g. Goodbye Columbus and the first Zuckerman trilogy), so his late concentration on the form is not terribly surprising. In contrast to his earlier novellas, though, the late novellas are 'terminal' works, narrative meditations that circle obsessively around themes of decline, disease and death. Indignation, which begins in a lighter mode as a typically Rothian Newark coming-of-age narrative, soon reveals itself to be the recollections under morphine of a soldier dying in the Korean War. The story has a couple moments of instantly classic Rothian outrage (an interview with a college dean that ends with the protagonist spraying the office with vomit; a minor character who breaks into the narrator's dorm room and covers his belongings in semen), as well as some elements and scenes that are nothing short of masterful (the book's explicit intertextual relationship to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; the collegiate snowball fight that becomes a campus version of Korea before modulating into a tamer (but more outrageous to the administrative powers that be) panty raid). Indignation is certainly not a bad book. It's better than the overrated Everyman, and I enjoyed it and found a lot to praise in it, but it is clearly one of Roth's lesser achievements. It doesn't approach his heights (The Ghost Writer, Portnoy, Sabbath), and even among the late novellas it's surpassed by Dying Animal and Exit Ghost. Roth's biggest problem here and in the late novellas generally might be something Aristotle could've diagnosed: Roth is trying to write tragedies as if they were comedies; he's telling tragic tales as though they were comic ones, and his style often jars against his subject matter. A good example of this is the long, ironic sentence in Indignation describing a minor character's death in a hellish automobile accident. The effect may well be deliberate (the dying or dead narrator's way of trivializing the death of an 'enemy'), but the irony sucks the tragedy out of this death--and, by implication, out of all death, surely not an authorially intended effect.

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