‘Indignation’ Incites Anger

The life of a 19-year-old is recounted from beyond the grave in Philip Roth’s novel

“My characters are galley slaves,” Vladimir Nabokov told the Paris Review in 1967—and he was telling the truth. It isn’t difficult to imagine any one of his memorable protagonists as helpless prisoners, each chained to his oar on Nabokov’s ship—Pnin to indifference (against which he cracks), Kimbote to delusion (to which he succumbs), Humbert to lust (which drives him to kidnap and murder). The more forward motion these characters seemed to make, the clearer it became to the reader that they were stuck in the same place. But while Nabokov’s characters were ultimately the victims of their author’s mechanisms, they were also, fundamentally, the labors of a loving creator.

It’s difficult to make the same case for Marcus Messner, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s 29th book, “Indignation.” As is now common in his novels, Roth writes autobiographically: Marcus is a young Jewish man from Newark, N.J., with a formidable intellect and an equally formidable anxiety. This anxiety first takes hold when his father transforms from a nurturing role model and friend into a fear-ridden monster. Fight after fight leads Marcus to relocate to the town of Winesburg, Ohio, and a college of the same name, in 1951. And here the anxieties only compound: Marcus buries himself in work, falls in love, fights with both his roommates and the college’s faculty, and in so doing pushes himself into isolation. By the end of this brief, cruel novel, Marcus is more Roth’s whipping boy than his galley slave—one whose self-loathing Roth weaves with his own fascination with mortality.

The book progresses under Marcus’s narration, where he reveals to the reader, after a time, that he is telling this story from beyond the grave. For Roth fans, this will come as no surprise; one of Roth’s most recent novels, “Everyman,” deals explicitly with a character taking stock of his life beginning at his own funeral. In “Indignation,” Roth explores, albeit in a few sentences, the most interesting aspect of Marcus’s story—the idea of the naked consciousness revisiting life after the death of the body, in utter solitude. It seems as fitting an oar as any, but Roth has other plans in the end.

Marcus’s consciousness is the result of all his life’s past experiences, and Marcus remains defiantly static throughout the novel. His indignation—with his father, with his school, with organized religion, with a future he cannot accept–is what moves him forward through a passageway that narrows rapidly as he approaches his fate. Roth’s indignation is that Marcus must survive, must fulfill his potential, and yet he can do neither in this world and Roth knows it. The reader’s indignation comes in the end when Roth goes too far, taking complete control and removing all agency from Marcus, and in so doing plunges the audience into the darkness. The final pages of “Indignation,” while attempting the complete reframing that Ian McEwan managed in “Atonement,” lack that subtlety of craft, and instead of leaving the characters in uncertainty, it simply leaves them.

Whatever the resonance of the ending, the main action is of little value. Roth’s dry style lends itself well to the book’s first few pages, running breezily through Marcus’s perfect life as the perfect son. But as Marcus’s father moves into the background and his anxiety comes to the foreground, each new face is rendered with less and less detail. Characters of significance to the novel exist only insofar as Marcus can remember them (read: barely); Roth instead relies on the intensity of Marcus’s reactions and the brevity of the novel at large to mask their flatness. There is something to be said for the fact that Marcus tells his story at 19. Despite his intelligence, it can hardly be asked that he recall people and places and events with the omniscience of Roth himself, and Roth has effectively illustrated the consciousness interrupted. But the recounting of Marcus’s life and his state during the telling of the novel seem almost vestigial to one another; his particular rumination does not seem to lend itself totally to the frame that Roth gives him.

Roth is one of America’s most beloved writers, and his reputation precedes him as “Indignation” opens, but the novel itself never so much as glimpses the heights to which he seems to aspire. It’s a cliché for artists in their old age to become obsessed with death, and Roth has done well to invert that trope and return to his youth (even if his protagonist dies anyway). But “Indignation” flies by so inexplicably that whatever intention Roth had–whether to explore consciousness, to meditate on his own life, or to tease out an historical period obscured by cultural memory–feels ignored. Whether “Indignation” could bear the weight of a longer story is uncertain, but it certainly wouldn’t feel so slight.

—Staff writer Ryan Meehan can be reached at