At the age of seventy-six Philip Roth remains as prolific as ever – perhaps even more so, as if time is running out on him to write all the books he has left within him. Indignation was his novel of last year, like Everyman before it, is a book of modest length – a mere 233 pages of generously sized type. I read it just as his latest novel (The Humbling) was published.
I often think of Roth being something of a latter-day Balzac – he deals with the big things in contemporary society, through the eyes of an individual, and his novels together paint an imporessively com=prehensive view of contemporary society and its fears and obsessions. Also like Balzac, I usually find that you need to perservere with the first fifty pages or so before the story really takes off. The perserverance is always well-rewarded in the end, of course.
Indignation, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. It gets stuck in from the very start, telling the extraordinary (yet mundane) tale of Marcus Messner, lying fatally wounded in a field hospital in Vietnam, as his life flashes before him. Messner is an intelligent , cultured and articulate young man with a glittering future ahead of him, but it is his very intelligence that lead him to make a series of seemingly minor, but ultimately disastrous decisions that lead inexorably to an early death. It is his indignation (the indignation of youth mixed with the pride, arrogance and self-righteousness of gifted youth) that is his downfall. His inability to see the wider picture, to see beyond the immediate is not an unusual youthful folly, but Messner, in his attempts to take control of his own destiny, merely succeeds in surrendering it to the wider forces of society and history. As with many of Roth’s works Indignation explores how the personal and everyday relates to the wider, monumental force of history, and how one impacts on the other.