Monday, July 27, 2009

Philip Roth's novel Indignation

Indignation by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008

Yesterday I completed reading a review copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, scheduled for September 2009 distribution: the stories are enjoyable, and by using music as a reference in the different stories, the book performs a study of art, appreciation, and celebrity in our time, saying things we might be afraid to say as we do not want to be thought hateful or weak. Last week, I read Philip Roth’s 2008 novel Indignation.

Indignation is the story of a smart Jewish boy whose father’s worries alienate the boy and drive him away from their New Jersey home to an Ohio college. There the young man meets a crazy, sexy blonde and has his first sexual experience. His conflicts with others, including authority figures, leads to moments of self-affirming anger—that are also self-endangering.

Indignation is a coming of age story, a college novel, a Jewish family story, a war story, and a tale of American individuality—the kind of individuality that leads to both brilliance and self-destruction. It is easy to conclude that Roth has an easy mastery of his material—and is able to anticipate and fulfill (or defeat) a reader’s expectations. I found myself having a reservation about the book—thinking the story too small, or too conventional, only to have the story explode that reservation in the next few pages. I thought the students too insular, too self-involved, and then they indulged themselves in a panty raid and the college president offered a scathing analysis on the real context of their lives, on all the important facts and values they were ignoring, addressing and vanquishing my reservations.

Indignation, about learning and sex and life and death, is a good book: it has its value, and its resonance. However, I wonder about the use of a crazed, precociously sexual young woman in fictions depicting the 1950s, as a symbol of both experience and experience repressed. Books tend to represent these women as exceptional—and yet there seem to be so many in books. Is that a male misunderstanding of female sensibility—or a cliché writers cannot let go?