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BOOK REVIEW

The lion in winter

With 'Indignation,' Philip Roth, 75, reveals a sensibility he didn't have in his 30s and 40s. But he's still ticked off.

September 14, 2008|James Marcus | James Marcus is the author of "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut" and blogs at House of Mirth (housemirth.blogspot.com).

In person, 75-year-old Philip Roth seems anything but indignant. Seated on a couch in the inner sanctum of his agent's office, he is soft-spoken, prone to long, thoughtful pauses. Even his clothing -- khaki pants, brown shoes, an Oxford shirt with a light check -- is almost strikingly nondescript. Where, one wonders, is the fire-breathing ventriloquist of "Portnoy's Complaint" or the self-reflexive vaudevillian of the Zuckerman trilogy?

The answer is the same as always: on the page. Roth's latest work of fiction is "Indignation" (Houghton Mifflin: 256 pp., $26). Like many of its predecessors, it contains more than its share of mounting wrath. As we begin our conversation, I suggest that the title would be appropriate for any number of his novels. Is Marcus Messner, the 19-year-old protagonist, truly any more ticked off than, for example, the infuriated hero of "Sabbath's Theater"?

"Oh, he's not nearly as indignant as Mickey Sabbath," Roth replies. "Nobody could be as indignant as that. I suppose there are shades and degrees of complaint. Still, the title seemed appropriate here. And sure, you could call the other books 'Indignation 1,' 'Indignation 2' and so forth. 'The Indignation Chronicles.' "

What prompted the author, who has chronicled the woes of advancing age in his recent work, to produce a novel about a college freshman? "In the previous several books I've written," he says, "the guys were getting older and older. I just wanted to change the perspective for myself. Also, I had never written anything that took place at that moment, during the Korean War. I was curious to see what I could do with it."

This brings up a major shift in Roth's methodology. During the first half of his long career, his books seemed to emerge from a personal state of emergency. Now, however, he is more apt to be inspired by historical moments. What has brought about this change?

"Getting older," Roth says, echoing his earlier comment about his protagonists. "Seeing things from a historical perspective -- which I couldn't when I was in my 30s and 40s. Just as you see your own past more clearly, you see the national past more vividly."

"Indignation" is an exploration of both the personal and national past. The novel takes place in 1951, when many of Roth's contemporaries were being slaughtered on the battlefields of the Korean peninsula. Like the author, Messner has fled Newark, N.J., for a small Midwestern college. In his autobiographical "The Facts," Roth chalked up his departure to his father's paternal zeal. Messner's father, too, has taken on the mantle of the overprotective parent, "crazy with the frightening discovery that a little boy grows up, grows tall, overshadows his parents, and that you can't keep him then, that you have to relinquish him to the world."

At tiny Winesburg College (the name is surely a nod to Sherwood Anderson's vision of the gentile heartland), the upright Messner is swiftly introduced to the mysteries of the flesh. He also begins to rebel against the stolid conformity of the place. Yet he has little of Portnoy's madcap intransigence, even when the dean accuses him of being a kind of outside agitator.

"What is he?" Roth speculates. "I don't know that he's a malcontent. He's out of sync with his environment, whether it's his home environment and his father, or the college, with its rules and regulations. The dean is simply a more well-groomed version of his father."

Messner is, in other words, a good boy. This makes him an odd bird in Roth's universe, where the flouting of parental authority is an almost universal itch. What's more, "Indignation" concludes with a strange reassertion of that authority. The protagonist has gotten his comeuppance (and much, much more), and learned the lesson that his "uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result." Can Roth really be suggesting that father knows best?

"Well, the irony is there," he concedes. "But what I'm interested in here, as in the other books, is the unforeseen catastrophe. Messner's father has, as it were, a premonition, which is based on nothing but his fear and anxiety. I was really pointing to a general subject."

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