Indignation – Philip Roth
About a quarter of the way through this novel the narrator makes the following statement: “And even dead, as I am and have been for I don’t know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen.” A few things to note: Is the voice right? Would a boy talk in such a formal, stilted way? As for his declaration, “mores” are not Marcus’s problem. His troubled efforts are directed at coping with people whose actions are hurtful and inexplicable. When he calls out, “If only my father, if only Flusser, if only Elwyn, if only Olivia – !” he’s identifying his real dilemma. It’s a complex one that Roth never addresses; he simply lets characters do their damage and then disposes of them. This seemed especially evasive in the case of Olivia. Instead of dealing with the emotional quandary this appealing and deeply disturbed young woman presents for Marcus, Roth gets rid of Olivia by shipping her off to a mental hospital. What Roth does turn his attention to are unlikely and somewhat ridiculous events (an epic panty raid, etc.). As for those “mores that reigned over that campus,” Marcus chose to go to a conservative, religious college (where he’s one of a handful of Jews), so why would he go into a long rant in the dean’s office espousing his atheistic beliefs? Actually, he wouldn’t; his words come “almost verbatim” from a Bertrand Russell lecture entitled “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Roth acknowledges this source; but a question arises: why would he use his main character as a mere mouthpiece? In the short final chapter, which is told in the third person, we learn that Marcus was expelled from Winesburg College and was drafted; he winds up on Massacre Mountain in Korea, wounded beyond recovery; to put him out of his physical suffering he’s given a heavy dose of morphine; the only thing functioning is his mind, and what we’ve been reading are his last thoughts (as if his last thoughts would be “to reconstruct” and “to recapitulate”). Fact is, by steadily reducing Marcus to a shadow of what he had once been, Roth had killed him off before the Chinese forces do the job. In the closing two page “Historical Note” we learn that in the seventies Winesburg was forced by student protests to change course: “ . . . the chapel requirement was abolished along with virtually all the strictures and parietal rules regulating student conduct . . .” Is this a summing up of Marcus’s story? Was the indignation all about the unfair conservative mores of a Midwestern college? What a copout.
The Humbling – Philip Roth
What gets humbled is Philip Roth. The novel begins with a once-great stage actor, now in his sixties, agonizing over his inability to perform. He becomes suicidal, but he can’t pull the trigger; he checks himself into a mental hospital; there he meets a woman who asks him to kill her husband; he declines. In the second chapter (called “The Transformation”) Pegeen enters his life. Axler had been friends with her parents, and had known her from infancy. He also knew that since age twenty-three she had lived as a lesbian. When her previous lover had decided to undergo a sex change – something which Pegeen considered to be a betrayal – she had left her and taken a job at the university near where Axler lives. There she carried on – and abruptly terminated – an affair with the female dean, who goes bonkers over this. (Don’t we have a lot of people acting oddly?) Anyway, Axler and Pegeen become lovers, and he’s transformed into a happy man. But he has misgivings, mainly about their twenty-five year age difference; his worries are reinforced when Pegeen gives him a verbatim account (in a seven page long paragraph) of a conversation she has with her mother; regarding her affair with Axler she says, “I’ve been very surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed it. But I couldn’t yet declare it’s definitely the permutation I will always want.” (Is this how real people talk?) Up to this point the novel was a bit staid, so I wasn’t prepared when, on the first page of the last chapter (“The Final Act”), Roth abruptly plunged me knee deep in kinky sex. It was both explicit and clinical, a distasteful combination, but I kept reading so that I could witness a famous author flushing himself down the toilet. He achieves this when describing, in ugh-inducing detail, a threesome (“Your turn. Defile her,”orders Pegeen). As things turn out, Pegeen decides it’s over with Axler; she takes her bag of sex toys and moves on to her next permutation (probably with the defiled woman). Axler is again in suicidal despair over the loss of this gem (he wanted her to be the mother of his child). Since everybody in this novel is a robot, I could care less. Roth resurrects the woman in the mental hospital (I knew she had to be in the story for some reason); he learns that she had killed her husband with two shotgun blasts, and in this act Axler finds inspiration: “If she can do that, I can do this.” Still, he hesitates, shotgun in hand, until he gets a great idea: he can “pretend he was committing suicide in a play.” Chekhov, it is, The Seagull. And he brings it off, his final act. Thankfully, this demeaning book wasn’t Roth’s final act – there would be one more before he called it quits.
See Philip Roth's Final Quartet for more.