Over the course of Philip Roth’s last three novels, death has moved from the thematic margins where it’s long resided to the central place we might expect it to take in the now 75-year-old writer’s oeuvre. In 2006’s Everyman, mortality is present from the very beginning, as the book opens with the funeral of the central character whose story is narrated (his life reflected back on) in terms of the bodily decay that inevitably comes with aging. Bodily decay marks the starting point of that book’s follow-up, the appropriately titled (if hugely disappointing) Exit Ghost. The last novel in the ongoing chronicle of Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, Ghost finds the aging protagonist, long in retreat from the world following a prostrate surgery that has left him incontinent, returning to New York to consult with doctors about his condition and being everywhere besieged with signs of decay and mortality from his past. In his latest novel, Indignation—easily his best work in at least ten years—Roth confines himself to the college career of his young protagonist, Marcus Messner, but despite its youth-oriented setting, the book is no less concerned with mortality than the AARP milieu of his last two books.
In fact, the specter of death, with which every page of Indignation is thoroughly blotted, has never been more present in the author’s work. Caught between the twin poles of fear and anger, 19-year-old Marcus Messner’s college life is predicated on avoiding the Korean War (then raging in the book’s 1951 backdrop) at all costs, but when those costs mean adhering to the absurdities of chapel attendance and four semesters of ROTC in order to avoid being thrown out of school and losing his college deferment, Messner has some difficulty staying the course. Something of an existential hero—as much for our age as for the 1950s—Messner finds himself incapable of adhering to the inherent absurdity of the collegiate regulations. Attending fictional Winesburg College in Ohio (one of several allusions to Sherwood Anderson’s classic novel), an institution with a strong Christian bent and a stated goal of shaping moral character, Messner challenges the hypocrisy and narrowmindedness of the institution through a series of exchanges with an intimidatingly authoritative dean, even enlisting then recent Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell to his cause.
But after the challenge comes the fear: the fear of expulsion and, its corollary, the fear of death. As with Camus’ Meursault, when Messner is finally condemned it is not for any actual crime, but for a tangential formality. As Meursault refuses to feign grief at his mother’s funeral, so Messner refuses to affect a false piety by attending chapel. And so both men are sentenced for their inability to suffer the conventional lies that allow the smooth functioning of society. In Roth’s case that society—then as now—is constituted around a repressive, authoritarian ruling party that uses so-called Christian values and a series of scare tactics to justify destructive and unnecessary warfare. Though Vietnam represents the obvious parallel with Iraq, Roth here substitutes Korea, allowing him to set his novel in the more socially restrictive 1950s and to explore in greater detail the sexual repression that was more pronounced in the campus life of that era, but which continues to assert a baleful influence today, stemming from the same authoritative inclination that leads to the perpetuation of armed conflict.
But such are the prevailing mores of Marcus’ time that only after receiving a surprise round of fellatio from a happily willing young woman does the shocked 19-year-old learn that women can take a positive interest in sex. His prior understanding of Eisenhower-era sexual politics, which indeed seems to hold true for the majority of the college’s female students, is that women want nothing more than “to reestablish with a reliable young wage earner the very sort of family life from which they had temporarily been separated by attending college, and to do so as rapidly as possible.” Roth makes clear the ways in which this predominant conception of female non-sexuality and general passivity is shown to have enormously devastating effects. For the young woman who embraces her sexuality and gives freely of herself, the penalty is the vicious labeling and gossip of undersexed young men, and, in the case of Marcus’ girlfriend, the final results are alcoholism, suicide attempts, electroshock and an unwanted pregnancy. For the men, the pent-up sexual repression leads to a campus-wide panty raid marked by vandalism and a massive spread of ejaculate, an event which leads to serious repercussions for the campus community and, indirectly, to the expulsion and death of Messner.
Yes, Messner meets his fate in Korea, but I’m not giving anything away by saying so. Roth lets us know pretty early on of his hero’s eventual demise by introducing an odd, but effective device in which Marcus speaks to us from a hazy netherworld. In this imperfectly defined afterlife, he is denied human contact and has nothing to do except remember, endlessly mulling over the events of his brief terrestrial existence. This sense of inevitability marks the novel with a certain hovering sadness, granting a retrospective view of youthful life from the vantage point of a final knowledge. But even without this knowledge, the omnipresence of war that fills the novel’s margins renders Roth’s conception of childhood as one in which innocence is entirely absent, even as Marcus’ classmates frolic around in blithe complacency. In the end, the only way to escape death is to play by the rules, but for Roth’s young hero, a man for whom indignation is the natural reaction to the false, absurd formalities that are granted a disproportionate importance by the ruling powers, it’s only fitting that he winds up dead on one more battlefield, staining the ground with the blood of one more anonymous U.S. soldier. Being a Roth hero, at least he doesn’t go without a fight. The final words he speaks are addressed to the dean of men, but they can be equally well applied to the college, the country, and all the other lies that have come to constitute contemporary American life. “What choice did Marcus have,” Roth writes, “what else could he do but, like the Messner that he was, like the student of Bertrand Russell’s that he was, bang down his fist on the dean’s desk and tell him for a second time, ’Fuck you’?”
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.