On page 54 of Philip Roth’s Indignation, the narrator quietly advises us that he’s already dead. Oh dear. But this is Philip Roth, so it’s obviously intentional, isn’t it? And all rules are made to be broken, aren’t they? It’s what the postmodern is all about, after all. Maybe so. I hate so-called rules of creative writing, especially ones beginning with “Don’t”, which is a word guaranteed to make this particular contrarian reach for the “do”. There is, to my mind, only one rule in creative writing: if there is a reason why you should do something, then you must do it.
So, is there a reason why the narrator of Indignation should already be dead? Yes, but it’s a qualified yes. It’s a yes given with a heavy heart, because I fear I may be falling prey to the “great writer” syndrome and giving Roth more latitude than I would a new or beginner writer. Indignation is a compulsively readable book but it is nowhere near as powerful as it thinks it is. The fact that the narrator is dead is not the cause of this weakness, but it does bring the flaws to the fore.
The narrator is Marcus Messner, a Jewish boy in the 1950s raging against conformity and its strictures and making plans to avoid the imminent danger of the Korean War. His father is sliding into a paranoid condition in which he sees danger in every mundane moment and his over-protectiveness drives Markie out of the family home to a college as far away from Newark as he can find. He fetches up in Winesburg, Ohio. And here his troubles really begin.
Markie is not someone inclined to compromise. His social skills are not well developed. He finds it difficult to empathise or to see anything from another’s perspective. Aloof and alone, he shuns offers of friendship, refusing to join the campus fraternities who queue up to recruit him. All of this is grimly familiar to me: when I was at school, one of my reports stated that I was “diffident in relationships with his peers.” I was more proud of that statement than anything else in my entire school career, continually rolling the phrase around my palate and savouring its meaning like a fine wine. For the outsider to be identified as an outsider is the greatest possible accolade.
But, of course, there is ultimately something nihilistic about such an approach. It becomes a life lived in negative, with progress ranked and rewarded by absence, the privileging of solitude over community. “No, I won’t do that,” becomes the clarion call. “I will do things by myself. I will neither seek nor offer assistance.” Thus, although he is commonly described as “the nicest boy in the world”, Markie is not, in fact, an especially likeable person and this becomes problematic within the structure of the novel, focused as it is on Markie’s death. Throughout the novel, Markie has forced himself into an emotional bubble and it is difficult for the reader’s emotions to penetrate his sense of isolation and in so doing extend great pity for a life extinguished almost before it is allowed to begin. For the novel to have at its structural core the death of the protagonist, there must be a sense of gradually increasing emotional attachment to him. But Markie Messner does everything he can to ensure that does not happen.
This feels to me a significant fault in the novel. By locating Markie in Winesburg, Ohio, Roth is clearly suggesting a connection to Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 story collection of that name. And superficially there are resonances, to be sure. The characters of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio are insular, solipsistic people who crave but cannot sustain human relationships. Markie would fit in with these grotesques very well. But, ultimately, at least some of Anderson’s poor, stilted people find some way of connecting with one another. Like the beautiful losers of Carson McCullers's novels, through their loneliness they still, somehow, sometimes, make the spark of human connection. Markie Messner, despite opportunities, never quite does.
Most signifantly, Roth's depiction of Markie's relationship with the fragile Olivia is flawed. Olivia, a suicidal young woman with distressingly low self-esteem, has the potential to be a great character. Indeed, she is far and away the most interesting person in the novel. But in the end she is poorly served by Roth, who cannot get inside her head convincingly. It could be argued, I acknowledge, that the novel is not about Olivia and if Roth were to focus more on her it could compromise the thematic integrity of the whole. Granted, but nonetheless a great novel would find a way to integrate Olivia’s story into the narrative more effectively. After all, in a novel where the smallest mistakes have the gravest consequences, the damaged Olivia’s serial catastrophes offer a striking counterpoint to Markie’s: where Markie’s need to succeed fuels his increasing insularity, it is an overwhelming need for love which drives Olivia.
That fragility could be heartbreaking. It is hard not to read Olivia and think of Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Alas, for Roth, the comparison is not favourable. There is nothing of the intensity of Esther in Olivia. The reader cannot make the same emotional investment in her. That Olivia’s tragedy is part of Markie’s tragedy and that Markie’s tragedy is part of our tragedy – Everyman approaching everydeath – should form the philosophical bedrock of the novel. Instead, the pathos of Olivia is replaced, near the novel’s ending, by the bathos of the great panty raid, a scene which is extremely funny but wholly out of sympathy with the emotional direction at that stage of the novel. If the two plot elements had even been transposed so that the panty raid preceded the denouement with Olivia it might have worked. As it is, Olivia is cast into an oblivion she doesn’t deserve and the novel loses its way.
This is a pity, because there is a genuine profundity to Indignation which, if we were allowed easier access to the spirit of its protagonist, would make it a great work. Most of Roth’s late fiction has been obsessed by death, and Indignation is clearly part of his process of seeking an accommodation with mortality. In this he is telling us, of course, that it isn’t possible to isolate oneself in a bubble. Reality will interrupt. Life will happen. Mistakes will be made. Chance will intervene. To read Philip Roth is to understand that death will arrive, sooner or later, and there is no escape, neither for the optimist nor the pessimist, for the bon viveur or the curmudgeon, the insider or the outsider. Markie makes a mistake. It is a small mistake, trivial. Nowadays it would not even be a mistake, simply a choice made by a rational being. But in 1951, in Winesburg, Ohio, it is a mistake that leads to his death at the age of 19. And that is heartbreaking. But such is life.