By nine in the evening two feet of snow had fallen, and it was still snowing, magically snowing, now without a wind howling through the streets of Winesburg, without the town’s old trees swaying and creaking and their weakest limbs, whipped by the wind and under the burden of snow, crashing down into the yards and blocking the roads and driveways — now without a murmur from the wind or the trees, just the raggedly clots swirling steadily downward as though with the intention of laying to rest everything discomposed in the upper reaches of Ohio.
So it begins — one of the silliest episodes in Philip Roth’s devilishly silly recent offering, Indignation (2008). Spurred on by the winter wonderland newly formed around them, the boys of Winesburg decide to raid the girls’ dormitories. Their long-term goal: to augment the snowfall, by rooting around in the girls’ drawers for pairs of white panties and tossing them out the window.
This odd occurence is not out of place in this surreal novel, which showcases the best and worst of Roth, and which is far, far dafter than mainstream reviewers have let on. It’s predominantly a tale of campus naughtiness in the 1950s, with a sick and ingenious twist: the narrator, 19-year old Marcus Messner, is “under morphine”, on the brink of death in a Korean war hospital. In the blackly humorous Hellerian insanity of the 1950s Christian Mid-West, the rules are simple: respect authority and don’t indulge in “thoughtless fun” — or we’ll send you off to be eviscerated by Commies. We know that poor Messner will eventually end up on the wrong side of the “or”.
Messner — a hardworking butcher’s son from Newark, determined to come top of the class in everything — makes an inept libertine, but even the iota of independent thought he allows himself — his objection to attending Christian chapel services — is enough to mark him out as a troublemaker in the deceptively serene surroundings of Winesburg, where the deceptively caring Dean of Men is all too ready to chuck students into the waiting jaws of conscription. College students are exempt, but expelled students are not. In a blazing row with the Dean, as Marcus teeters on the brink of expulsion, his pride is overpowering:
I inwardly sang out the most beautiful word in the English language: “In-dig-na-tion!”
As Messner recounts his typical studenty experiences — his awkward sexual encounters, his clashes with roommates, his in-dig-na-tion whenever he’s told off — there is a dark subtext, since we know that such comic escapades can be indirectly fatal, and we know that, for Marcus, one of them will be. Messner learns the hard way how “one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result”.
But, though it hammers home this lesson, it would be quite wrong to interpret Indignation as a deep philosophical work — or even as a particularly serious work. After all, the framing device is simply wacky — a morphine-sedated soldier recounting his memories in choronological order via eloquent, witty, Philip Roth sentences? Why not? But more than that, the novel’s events are just too irrepressibly Rothian to be taken for real. Panties, fellatio, nymphomania… the Roth stalwarts are all present and correct. When Marcus is bedridden in hospital with appendicitis, he is visited by his sex-crazed classmate Olivia:
There was a gently erotic sway to her gait as she slowly approached the bed pointing a finger at my erection. “You are odd, you know. Very odd,” she told me, once she’d at last arrived at my side. “Odder than I think you realize.”
“I’m always odd after I have my appendix out.”
“Do you always get as huge as this after you’ve had your appendix out?”
“Never fails.” Huge. She’d said huge. Was it?
I won’t describe what happens next. Roth’s penchant for literary porn has always limited his appeal, and always will. Sometimes I wonder why such an incorrigibly silly author continues to draw such critical fawning — and continues to bring me back, again and again. But the answer’s simple: it’s the prose, stupid. Flowing and furious, vivid and lucid, Roth’s sentences, as the passage at the top of the page makes plain, are as irresistible as ever.