Master of dialogue returns to adolescence
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.