by Philip Roth; New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008, 256 pages, $26
Dr. Geller who is book review editor, is professor of psychiatry and director of public-sector psychiatry at University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester.
In a marvelously written novel, Philip Roth covers about two years in the life of Marcus Messner, son of a kosher butcher. Messner is a high school graduate, class of 1950, as well as captain of his debate team and second baseman on his high school baseball team. He is the first in his family to go to college, an observant Jew and ardent atheist who endorses the writings of Bertrand Russell, and famous at Winesburg College for vomiting all over the dean's office. The readers are informed of the point of all this: "The terrible, the incomprehensible way one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result." Messner basically suffers from toxic indignation.
The novel is enriched by the ins and outs of the characters' cross-weaving stories and the fascinating presentation of how people's lives are touched profoundly by ever-so-short encounters with others. Roth tells his tale with absolutely terrific sentences such as, "Where better than at Winesburg for a Bertrand Flusser to luxuriate without abatement in an abundance of rebuke?" Or, "[T]hough I knew without a doubt, even then, knew like the son of my fear-laden father, that this preternaturally handsome Jewish boy with a privileged paragon's princely bearing, used to inspiring respect and being obeyed and ingratiating himself with everyone and never quarreling with anyone and attracting the admiring attention of everyone, used to taking delight in being the biggest thing in his little interfraternity world, would turn out to be the angel of death." Roth is truly a master at work.
From a psychiatric perspective, there are characters galore with more than enough psychopathology for this reasonably short book. Marcus' father becomes obsessed and controlling when his son leaves for college. His mother is a stalwart. Olivia, the object of Marcus' attention, has had bouts of depression, suicide attempts, and multiple hospitalizations. Roth does make a mistake, however, in giving Olivia her wrist-slashing scar on the wrong wrist. If I can't intrigue you to read this book for any other purpose, read it to find out how I reached that conclusion.
The novel is set during the Korean War, a fact that is repeatedly of import to many of the characters. It also moves between Newark, New Jersey, and the Midwest, which also is of importance to many of the characters. Anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, and antidepressants all play roles in Indignation.
I can't recommend this book highly enough for those who are Philip Roth fans; this will resonate with readings of Portnoy's Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, and Letting Go. For those who have never read a Roth novel, start here. After reading Indignation you'll probably think twice before experiencing indignation any time soon.