Philip Roth’s follow-up to Exit Ghost, 2008’s Indignation, sees the workaholic turn up the heat while dealing with the same obsessions: sex, alienation, and death. Especially death. For those who’ve yet to read the short novel, beware of reviews – online reviews, anyway – that sabotage the narrative through giving away important plot points, including one structural surprise, that can be anticipated to some extent, but nevertheless have to experienced on first reading for best effect. The New York Times’ Kakutani is the worst culprit for this. But whereas the protagonist of Roth’s preceding novel was seventy-one, Indignation’s intense first-person narrator is just out of his teens and trying to complete his first year of college. The outside world is always present – the ramped-up Korean War – as are Marcus’ parents, though the young man, at Ohio’s Winesburg college, has left them back in New Jersey because of his admonitory, overbearing father.
I’ve only read eight or nine of Roth’s twenty-nine (+?) novels, but I’m sure there’s a lot of standard fare here. College life, sexual awakening, the exotic shiksa, rebellion of all sorts, self-definition. Unlike others who felt the structure was both shoddy and clipped, I thought the transitions and amalgamations of the larger worlds (college, war, politics of both) were handled intelligently and, just as importantly, raised a number of points which transcended Roth’s irritating propensity for didactic verbosity (though at times that didacticism was handled humorously and with purpose, as in the central set-piece between a smug and patronizing Dean and a nervous yet defiant Marcus). I’d develop this line of thought a little further, but it would come at the expense of narrative explanation, so I’ll just plug the book and leave it at that.