Posts tagged ‘america’

Philip Roth — Indignation

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”.

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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.

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August 11, 2009 at 4:26 pm 6 comments

Colm Tóibín — Brooklyn

As I read the last 50 pages or so of Brooklyn, the new novel by twice Booker-shortlisted author Colm Tóibín, my face slowly contorted into what I can only describe as a grimace. I don’t know if this was the reaction Tóibín was hoping for. But at times this book resembles cringe-comedy, as the squirming reader is forced to watch a painfully naive heroine, Eilis Lacey, glide passively towards a horribly awkward dilemma.

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We meet Eilis as a young woman living with her mum in 1950s Enniscorthy, Ireland: a close-knit village community where Eilis expects to see out her days. She’d like a boyfriend, but the only plausible candidate — Jim Farrell — won’t speak to her. But then Eilis’s mother conspires with an Irish emigrant priest, Father Flood, to make arrangements for Eilis to leave it all behind and take up a job in Brooklyn, New York. We follow her across the stormy Atlantic, and watch as she settles into a new life in a strange new city. Before long, she finds new love with a new man: Tony, or, to use his full, dangerously exotic name, Antonio.

This accounts for the bulk of what, at 250 pages, is ultimately a modest addition to Tóibín’s oeuvre. It could hardly be more different from The Master (2004), Tóibín’s grim portrait of Henry James, an ambitious work of unrelenting intensity propelled by a storm of authentic, close-up turmoil. Tóibín never gets under the skin of Eilis, who remains a distant, hazy figure, pushed this way and that by events beyond her control. Brooklyn is not the story of what she does — it’s the story of what happens to her.

Just as Eilis’s relationship with Tony reaches a dramatic new level of intimacy, Eilis learns that she must briefly return to Enniscorthy following a family tragedy. Predictably, Jim Farrell swoops into action, and it all gets terribly soap-operaish as Eilis must pick a vertex from her transatlantic love polygon. It’s a final section that feels a little rushed — verging on contrived, in fact — but never mind.

Brooklyn is not a necessary book: there’s no sense that Tóibín had to write it, or that I had to read it. It feels more like a charming little story to pass the time on a train or a plane. But Tóibín’s laconic, measured prose is delightful, and the novel is touching in its portrayal of the strange contingencies that shape our lives, and in its evocation of the jolting, painful experience of cultural dislocation.

August 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm 1 comment


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