Thursday, September 18, 2008

Indignation, by Philip Roth

I am not, as I have said before, Roth's biggest fan. I usually dislike his characters (even when they're not congenitally unlikeable), I find his plots wooden, and I cannot bear his emphatic-ejaculatory writing style.

But I very nearly didn't mind this book.

Firstly, Roth's inability to layer ironies (when something's ironic, it's Ironic, or it's Darkly Comic) works unsurprisingly well when delivered with a young man's simple earnestness. The narrator is very much 19 and so when he writes sentences like "There—yet another goal: despite the trammels of convention still rigidly holding sway on the campus of a middling little midwestern college in the years immediately after World War Two, I was determined to have intercourse before I died," one is ready to accept that a young serious someone without a feel for language and who wants to be believed might say something rather like that.

Secondly, I frankly find his stereotyped goys more convincing as characters than his stereotyped Jews-who-act-like-goys. Roth is more fun when he's writing about crazy WASPs than he is when he's writing about fastidiously assimilated Jews (e.g. Swede Levov) or, for that matter, people trying to pass as fastidiously assimilated Jews (e.g. the black Coleman Silk attempting to pass as Jewish). Even in this novel, the narrator, Marcus Messner, every inch a fastidiously assimilating Jew, is not as interesting a character as any of the briefer sketches of lunatic WASPs which Roth creates haphazardly. Since this book is set in a bucolic Ohio town and a tradition-bound Small Liberal Arts College, the opportunities for repugnant WASPery are legion.

However, Indignation is not so much an attempt at a Roth novel as a whispered plea that you'll be kind enough to overlook the fact that it is not. I find the This-Book-Represents-America novels of the Nineties to be trite and cluelessly ambitious, but this book just hopes that you mistake it for being trite and cluelessly ambitious.

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