Bookmarks Issue: 
Philip Roth
Award Year: 

A-IndignationPhilip Roth has comically and poignantly portrayed America since World War II in Portnoy’s Complaint, Sabbath’s Theater, his postwar trilogy American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, as well as The Plot Against America ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2004), Everyman ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2006), and Exit Ghost ( 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2008).

The Story: Marcus Messner, 19-year-old son of a kosher butcher in Newark at the outset of the Korean War, narrates his story from the grave (a revelation that appears early on in the book). Marcus’s only goals in life—to be a straight-A college student, to become a lawyer, to find love—resonate with the nostalgic innocence and unquestioned sense of duty characterizing the period. He enrolls at a college in Winesburg, Ohio (an obvious nod to novelist Sherwood Anderson’s Midwestern world) to escape the influence of his beloved father, who worries about his son’s future. A brief stint in the military after Marcus’s expulsion from college ends with the young man’s death, and the events of his brief life are replayed with variations on Roth’s trademark bittersweet melodies.
Houghton Mifflin. 235 pages. $26. ISBN: 054705484X

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"It is Roth’s virtuoso skill to couple Marcus’s companionable pleasure in part-time butchering with his nightmare that the knives he wields so dexterously will be used on himself. … [Roth’s reasons] are at once insane, plausible, and disastrous." Richard Eder

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Some might conclude that Indignation is yet another example of the later Roth’s focus on mortality (it’s a lighter, funnier version if considered that way). … This slight novel reads, in short, like Roth making a quick star turn with many of the elements we have come to expect from him over the years." Art Winslow

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Inflamed with a grandiose sense of his aggrievement, Marcus grows more irrational, more terrified of the possibility of ending up on the bloody mountains of Korea, slaughtered and drained like the carcasses in his father’s butcher shop. … Here’s a novel to be witnessed as an explosion from an author still angry enough to burn with adolescent rage and wise enough to understand how self-destructive that rage can be." Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Of all Roth’s recent novels, [Indignation] ventures farthest into the unknowable. In his unshowy way, with all his quotidian specificity and merciless skepticism, Roth is attempting to storm heaven—an endeavor all the more desperately daring because he seems dead certain it’s not there." David Gates

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Roth saves the facts about his [protagonist’s] death for the very end of this report on the agonies, personal and social, of the American ‘50s. One of the final ironies of the many that drive this story may be that once you get caught up in the reading of it, you’ll never feel so alive as when fretting over Marcus Messner’s pathetic fate." Alan Cheuse

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"There is a suggestion, here and there, that [Roth] wants us to read Marcus’s story as a sort of parable about what happens to the individual when his paltry existence is hit head-on by the locomotive of history, but in the end this little novel possesses neither the ambition nor the scope of the author’s big postwar trilogy. … It’s a far more modest undertaking than that: more of a darkly comic exercise in the danger of self-fulfilling prophecies and the folly of thinking that being a hard-working A student will offer any sort of protection from the mad vagaries of fate." Michiko Kakutani

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The qualities that make Roth such a powerful and seductive writer—his unmatched talents to create a variety of worlds and the unquenchable anger that fuels the pages of rants and condemnations from his characters—are in full force here. But, it’s all too much, crammed into a novella-length space and rolled out without pause, rants followed by outrages, then more rants." Bob Hoover

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"One of the ways to recognize truly great writers is that even their mistakes engage us. Philip Roth is our greatest living novelist, and his new book, Indignation, is an irritating, puzzling and fascinating bundle of mistakes, miscalculations and self-indulgences." Tim Rutten

Critical Summary

The prolific Roth routinely evokes the nostalgia of the post-war era in America, and Indignation should put an exclamation point on a brilliant career spanning half a century. In a passage that’s pure Roth, his protagonist, Marcus Messner, laments "the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result." That sentence and others like it are worth a reader’s time, and many critics revel in Roth’s masterful handling of the period and his character. Others, however, wonder whether Roth gives himself enough room to breathe in this "rhetorical equivalent of a drive-by shooting" (Los Angeles Times) and fault Marcus for never experiencing any sort of personal evolution. Indignation will, however, appeal to those who like Roth short (though not sweet).