Mas­ter of di­a­logue re­turns to ado­les­cence

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Rose In­dig­na­tion By Philip Roth Jonathan Cape, 233pp, $ 39.95

AR over­shad­owed Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against Amer­ica , his au­da­cious ex­er­cise in al­ter­na­tive his­tory. Then it was Hitler’s war, the one against which iso­la­tion­ist Amer­ica baulked, fic­tively turn­ing to a pro- Nazi Charles Lind­bergh pres­i­dency to stay out of the Euro­pean mael­strom. Nar­rated by the young ‘‘ Philip Roth’’, that novel was about dread and po­lit­i­cal re­vul­sion and the scourge of anti- Semitism. ‘‘ Fear pre­sides over th­ese mem­o­ries, a per­pet­ual fear,’’ he writes at the out­set.

Since then, Roth has pub­lished three more nov­els, such is his pro­lific­ness. The lat­est one ( his 29th book), aptly ti­tled In­dig­na­tion , is set dur­ing the Korean War, that largely for­got­ten but im­mensely bloody con­flict.

The com­mu­nists have just crossed the 38th par­al­lel and in­vaded South Korea. The men­ace for our new nar­ra­tor, 18- year- old Jewish stu­dent Mar­cus Mess­ner, is po­tent. Un­less he can grad­u­ate with dis­tinc­tions and en­ter the army as an of­fi­cer, he knows there is an ex­cel­lent chance he will be killed in com­bat.

Mar­cus, like so many of his pre­de­ces­sors and like Roth, is a child of Ne­wark, New Jer­sey. He

Wis pru­dent, re­spon­si­ble, hard­work­ing, a de­bater and in- fielder who goes out with the ‘‘ nicest girls’’. De­voted to his par­ents, he works with his fa­ther in the fam­ily butcher shop. Th­ese pas­sages, th­ese gory idylls, es­tab­lish a kind of fond ac­cord be­tween them and re­mind us of Roth’s su­perla­tive mem­oir about his fa­ther, Pat­ri­mony: A True Story ( 1991).

But fear of war and in­cip­i­ent ill­ness warp the old kosher butcher. Still mourn­ing for two neph­ews killed in World War II, he is as­sailed by ‘‘ un­re­lent­ing in­ti­ma­tions of catas­tro­phe’’ and be­comes con­vinced that his only child will de­stroy him­self or be de­stroyed.

Rather abruptly, the fa­ther’s para­noid sur­veil­lance be­comes un­en­durable. When he starts dou­ble- lock­ing the doors, Mar­cus knows he must move away from Ne­wark. He en­rols in a dis­tant, WASP- ish col­lege in Ohio, the fic­tional Wi­nes­burg, bor­rowed from Sher­wood An­der­son’s 1919 book of that name.

At first Mar­cus, a pre- law stu­dent ma­jor­ing in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, leads a her­metic life. Rest­less, hy­per- crit­i­cal, ob­sessed with his stud­ies, he moves from dorm to dorm, in con­flict with every­one. A com­mit­ted athe­ist, he re­sents the chapel classes that are manda­tory (‘‘ Our Folly, which art in Heaven! The dis­grace of re­li­gion, the im­ma­tu­rity and ig­no­rance and shame of it all!’’). Fate­fully, he meets Olivia Hut­ton, a scarred, ir­re­sistible girl with a fa­mous man­ual action and ‘‘ eight thou­sand moods a minute’’.

Things quickly un­ravel and on page 54, in a risky meta­phys­i­cal flight, the nar­ra­tor re­veals some­thing that read­ers of this re­view must dis­cover for them­selves.

The rest — Olivia’s col­lapse, Mar­cus’s in­evitable doom, the men­dac­ity of oth­ers — has a kind of al­le­gor­i­cal fa­tal­ism, some­what dis­pro­por­tion­ate in such a short book. ‘‘ Fear, Mar­cus, fear leak­ing out at ev­ery pore, anger leak­ing out at ev­ery pore.’’

There are two re­mark­able and funny scenes be­tween Mar­cus and his wor­ried dean, at the

end of which the for­mer, full of in­tel­lec­tual rage and self- right­eous­ness, loses all self- con­trol and seals his fate. It’s as if in­dig­na­tion is all that Roth’s char­ac­ters have in the end. Even Mar­cus, con­ser­va­tive as he is, is en­raged by life, its specious­ness, its pueril­ity, just like the ou­tra­geous Mickey Sab­bath in the in­com­pa­ra­ble Sab­bath’s The­ater ( 1995), the homi­ci­dal Merry Levov in Amer­i­can Pas­toral ( 1997) and the im­mor­tal Alexan­der Port­noy.

Di­a­logue, as al­ways, is the ful­crum of Roth’s art. Only Henry James, with his man­nered, prob­ing style, has writ­ten such bril­liant di­a­logue. Here it is ef­fort­less, al­ter­nately mov­ing and hi­lar­i­ous. Some­times, show­ing off, Roth even runs it across the page, al­ways fol­low­ably. ( In De­cep­tion , his con­ver­sa­tional novel about adul­tery, Roth went one step fur­ther, es­chew­ing all props or an­no­ta­tion, ex­cept for the odd crumb or par­tici­ple.)

The hospi­tal scenes be­tween Mar­cus and Olivia are very cute, and when his anx­ious mother vis­its him at Wi­nes­burg their ex­changes are achingly ten­der. ‘‘ You can cry, Markie. I’ve seen you cry be­fore,’’ she tells the grown child who is ‘‘ noth­ing but its need of per­pet­ual nur­ture’’. A mad tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with the crazed fa­ther re­minds us yet again of Mike Ni­chols and Elaine May’s inim­itable im­pro­vi­sa­tions from the 1960s.

Oddly for such a mas­ter and the­o­rist of fic­tion, not all of Roth’s nov­els at­tain per­fect shape­li­ness. The Hu­man Stain ( 2000) was per­haps 100 pages longer than it should have been. The Plot Against Amer­ica was a for­mally per­fect work un­til it for­mally fell apart in the last 50 pages.

This new novel, with its thun­der­bolt in the mid­dle and its psy­cho­log­i­cal la­cu­nae, feels slightly un­even. But Roth, in his 76th year, is never less than be­guil­ing.

Af­ter the re­cent vale­dic­tory nov­els — The Dy­ing An­i­mal ( 2001) and Nathan Zuckerman’s not en­tirely sat­is­fac­tory farewell, Exit Ghost ( 2007) — who would have pre­dicted this late coda to the Korean War or this re­ver­sion to a knotty, self- de­struc­tive ado­les­cent type? Roth’s surely re­mains one of the most com­pelling and pro­tean ca­reers in mod­ern lit­er­a­ture.

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