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the complete review - fiction
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- Indignation was made into a film in 2016, directed by James Schamus
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B : a bloody, warped mess, but Roth is strong enough a writer to almost pull it off
See our review for fuller assessment.
Nothing approaching a consensus, with reactions all over the map
From the Reviews:
- "It was perhaps incautious of Roth to booby-trap this very slight novel with clues to more serious and moving work by others. The characters in Indignation are for the most part thin and flimsy, and the contrived relationship between the local and the cosmic, or the local and the global, finally manages only to produce a mainly storm-in-a-teacup effect." - Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic
- "With a title like Indignation, there’s a pretty good guarantee that you’re not signing up for subtlety." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
- "(P)erhaps we've been around these bends with him before, but he is a master. And the short form serves the story: The shocking rush from this book comes from watching Roth expertly and quickly build up to a half-dozen final pages that absolutely deliver the kill." - Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly
- "Indignation is Philip Roth’s best novel since The Counterlife (1986). In that long meantime the author has published many fine works -- perhaps too many; he is almost as prolific as Updike -- but none as intricately wrought, passionate and fascinating as this one. (...) One of the subtleties of Indignation is that we are never allowed to know quite what drives Markie at the deepest levels. (...) Indignation is a deceptively short book, written in a style in which limpidity conceals darkness." - John Banville, Financial Times
- "Empörung ist die Chronik eines sinnlosen Todes, ein Totentanz zwischen Schlachthaus und Schlachtfeld, die Geschichte eines verstoßenen Sohnes, das Porträt eines bis zur Heuchelei angepassten Amerikas und einer Gesellschaft, die an ihrer Selbstgerechtigkeit zu ersticken droht." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Like last year's Exit Ghost, Indignation doesn't meet the high standards Roth has set for himself. Each individual episode is quickly sketched with a few vigorous, jagged strokes, but the story zigzags wildly from set-piece to set-piece, and the novel as a whole only hangs together under the pressure of Roth's buttonholing intensity." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian
- "So the story rushes heedlessly and humourlessly on. Like a miner who puts up no pit props, there is always a danger of the story collapsing behind him, and it does. (...) The book is a tragedy, but not in the way Roth intended." - Justin Cartwright, Independent on Sunday
- "Indignation is, in essence, an ode to paranoia." - Glenn C. Altschuler, The Jerusalem Post
- "Indignation is an irritating, puzzling and fascinating bundle of mistakes, miscalculations and self-indulgences." - Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times
- "Es ist kein gutes Zeichen, wenn ein Schriftsteller die Moral der Geschicht' im letzten Satz explizit formuliert. Weil Roth überdies die ganze Dynamik innerer Vorgänge in die eher banale äussere Handlung verlegt, mangelt dem Buch zuletzt jene emotionale Dringlichkeit, die uns angesichts der wenig erbaulichen Aussichten auf ein ewig wiederkehrendes Diesseits Furcht und Zittern zu lehren vermöchte. Auch die Empörung, die dem Roman den Titel gab, dringt zum Leser nicht durch." - Andrea Köhler, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Indignation is the most schematic and set-piecey of Roth's recent novels, a parable of instant karma with an ironic coda that is almost Updikean in its pertness. (...) Indignation seems a bit bled-out too, a cautionary tale for the already cautious. The penalty meted out to Marcus Messner for not heeding his elders and committing the sin of intellectual pride is so swift and stark that it's as if the sole purpose of the Korean conflict was to punish a guy for getting blown and skipping chapel." - James Wolcott, The New Republic
- "Indignation is at bottom a fable, with a message about arbitrariness: however careful we are, whatever pains we take, we cannot guard against the selfishness and stupidity of others, the rigidity of institutions, our own pride and self-love. This seems surprisingly straightforward for Roth; but his natural deviousness -- a vital quality in a novelist -- won't be suppressed. (...) By Roth's standards, this is a slight, even slack book, with a faint whiff of the bottom drawer about it. But he is a compulsive writer, seemingly unable to produce work that doesn't swirl with oceanic depths of feeling and thought, that isn't drivingly readable." - Robert Hanks, New Statesman
- "Indignation is flawed, but I promise to ignore the problem as long as I can (it’s a case of ill-considered narrative strategy) and celebrate instead a magnificent display of writerly talent: a lean, powerful novel with bold characters who command attention; scenes of impressive dramatic intensity and comic vitality; language that blasts the reader’s cozy complacency (it’s not called Indignation for nothing); and a theme that swells imperceptibly from a murmur to a satisfying roar." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer
- "His powerful new novel, Indignation, seethes with outrage. (...) What makes all these fairly ordinary, youthful peccadilloes poignant and in the end tragic is that halfway through the novel we find out that the narrator is telling us all this while lying at the point of death in Korea." - Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books
- "At times he seems to be delighting in his own skill: Parts of Indignation have a gentle, lighthearted tone that has been absent from some of his other recent novels, particularly the portentous Exit Ghost. (...) But if the ingredients for the "Philip Roth novel" are expertly (if a bit too neatly) mise-en-place, they are not investigated here so much as scattered. This short novel has the rushed feeling of being hastened to the finish line. Moments of tension are left unresolved, forgotten." - Ruth Franklin, The New York Sun
- "All of Marcus’s unrelieved niceness makes for a somewhat pallid narrative (.....) Because Marcus never really struggles to reconcile clashing imperatives, he never undergoes any sort of development or evolution. And because his choices, which will absurdly snowball into a destiny-altering development, are so relatively minor (...), his story reads like an elaborate, blackly comic joke. It’s a joke that Mr. Roth delivers with consummate poise and a couple of bravura touches, but a joke, in the end, that doesn’t amount to a full-fledged novel." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "How does Roth get away with this stuff ? The cliffhanger, the obscure portent, the withholding of essential information? He doesn't use these antiquated devices ironically. And those occasional descents into boilerplate prose ? Roth's secret, I think, is his supreme confidence as a storyteller -- and, paradoxically, a supreme humility. His writing is at the service of his story and characters; he's a pragmatist, not a belletrist. If certain conventions of plot and language do the job, why get fancy ? He can break out the fine writing when the occasion requires." - David Gates, The New York Times Book Review
- "Roth, blending the bawdy exuberance of his early period and the disenchantment of his recent work, demonstrates with subtle mastery the "incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result." " - The New Yorker
- "Indignation is the inevitable culmination of the death obsession in late-period Roth; in retrospect, it now seems like it was only a matter of time, if time allowed, before he imaginatively followed one of his protagonists from this life into the next, from the operating table into the endless nothing. (...) Indignation is a strange, troubling and occasionally ridiculous book. (...) It can be read, perhaps, most successfully as an addendum to Roth's recent fiction, as a novel engaged in a complicated conversation with those that preceded it, rather than as a significant work in its own right. And yet one is ultimately moved and fascinated by it: a great writer is a great writer even when he's on cruise control." - Jason Cowley, The Observer
- "Indignation is almost comically well-titled: It's an angry little morality play about the harm men can do. (...) By design, Indignation is a slim and foreshortened volume, and critics are already assigning it to the shelf of "minor Roth," maybe because its narrative freight is small in relation to its themes. But its emotional effect is by no means small." - Louis Bayard, Salon
- "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, San Francisco Chronicle
- "I'd have to say it strikes me as a pretty minor work by Roth. (...) Always the literary seducer, Roth has beguiled readers over a long, entangling career. By contrast, Indignation is an ill-judged late-in-the-day one-night-stand, with the old maestro trying all his old tricks, but quickly." - Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday
- "Indignation draws the reader’s feelings in many directions. We side with Marcus for his integrity and we support his witty debunking of Winesburg’s phoniness, but when his anger passes a certain point it seems incommensurate and we look again at the people and institutions he opposes to see whether our acquiescence was too cheaply bought. (...) It is, therefore, a story of contrasts." - Simon Baker, The Spectator
- "Butchery of two kinds pervades Philip Roth's thrilling new novel. (...) Not that there's anything slackly repetitive about Indignation. Every part of it is dovetailed into a story of compelling economy. (...) As grippingly streamlined as Greek drama, Roth's mid-20th-century tale of nemesis transmits it again, brilliantly renewed with all the intellectual and imaginative force of a great novelist writing at the height of his powers." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "Indignation is a relevant and well-judged consideration of how national orthodoxy can have dire personal implications (particularly at a time of war). (...) Indignation is, among its many pleasures, a controlled expression of wrath." - Stephen Abell, The Telegraph
- "Venery; being Jewish; the campus; these are all the topoi you expect to find in a Philip Roth production, and they're all here. (...) Indignation, however, is one of the strongest skeletoned of Roth's novels, and is a model of authorial misdirection and narrative muscle. Nearly every time you think you can see where the novel is going, Roth changes tack, almost as if the whole book were written to a blueprint of zig-zags. (...) If I had to choose one word to sum up Indignation I'd go for classy. If I were allowed two: very classy." - Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph
- "This is a great book for several reasons. While many novelists try to prove their worth through (endless) description, Roth goes light on details but makes each one count. (...) The powerful ending, though, feels abbreviated. It would have been nice had Roth carried the reader through the resolution more closely." - Nicholas Pierpan, The Times
- "What Roth accomplishes in Indignation is to retrace in concentrated and utterly engrossing fashion the interconnected factors which engender a calamitous mistake." - Alison Kelly, Times Literary Supplement
- "In a triumph of the narrator's voice, Roth's 25th novel is a fresh take on his familiar themes (questions of Jewish and sexual identity) and targets (unexamined traditions and values). (...) What the novel lacks in scale, it compensates for in its writing." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
- "Copies of Indignation, Philip Roth's ferocious little tale, ought to be handed out on college campuses along with condoms and tetanus shots. This cathartic story might vent some of the volatile self-righteousness that can consume the lives of passionate young people (and, yes, old people too). (...) (W)ith Indignation, Roth presents his most concentrated parable of self-destructive fury. (...) 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, The Washington Post
- "Empörung ist das seltsame Musterbeispiel Paradox eines altmeisterlichen Romans über eine abbrechende Mannwerdung. Nichts hängt zufällig an den Wänden dieser gleißend hellen, blutigen Geisterbahn. So perfekt hat Roth die Geschichte vom unaufhaltsamen Untergang des Marcus Messner aber in Sätze, in Motive, in eine Geschichte gegossen, so bekannt sind die meisten schon, so perfekt ist alles bis ins feinste ausgeleuchtet, dass man leicht die blitzeblankbrillante Erzähloberfläche schon für den Inhalt nehmen könnte." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt
- "Die Geschlossenheit dieser Erzählung und ihrer Motive ist handwerklich beeindruckend, aber auch beengend." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Indignation is a novel full of over-pitched emotion.
It includes frustrated (and occasionally -- but no less helpfully -- fully ... discharged) sexual desire, a suicide attempt, a violent death, some broken bones, a nervous breakdown, vomiting, the release -- and the traces, lots and lots of traces -- of sperm, a pregnancy.
And indignation, and lots of blood.
It is the story of Marcus Messner: nearing adulthood at the beginning of the 1950s, his ambitions are evenly split between going off to college (the first in his family to do so) and avoiding the deadly -- and just in full bloom -- Korean War (the one ambition neatly also covering the other).
His father owns a butcher shop, and Marcus has spent a great deal of time helping out there, immersed (or at least up to his elbows) in the blood and guts and fat of the place; Indignation is literally visceral: what Marcus describes doing to prepare the chickens is pretty much what Roth does with him:
You slit the ass open a little bit and you stick your hand up and you grab the viscera and you pull them out.
I hated that part.
Nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done.
As Marcus is set to take his first steps towards independence, his father overreacts, his love and concern suddenly an overprotective embrace that threatens to suffocate Marcus.
Marcus begins college at nearby Robert Treat, but he has to escape his father's constant worrying, and so he flees, transferring to a school out of state:
So as to be free of my father, I'd chosen a school fifteen hours by car from new jersey, difficult to reach by bus or train, and more than fifty miles from the nearest commercial airport -- but with no understanding on my part of the beliefs with which youngsters were indoctrinated as a matter of course deep in the heart of America.
Marcus is smart -- a straight-A student -- but he's not cultured: he's never heard of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and is a city boy who is unable to identify a rose.
A Jewish boy from Newark, he winds up in Winesburg, Ohio -- as totemic a symbol of small town all-Americana as you can get (courtesy of Sherwood Anderson).
It takes him a while to explain how he made his choice and settled on this of all places; it's very revealing, and while he comes across as, for the most part, fairly self-confident, pegs him as anything but cocksure.
The college is not an ideal fit for Marcus.
He's not the only Jewish student there, but he does feel rather alien.
At the same time, he's not willing to work to fit in: he makes a point of emphasising that he has no interest in being part of a fraternity, and he moves in quick succession from a room with three roommates to one with one, to living alone (in "the worst room on the worst floor of the worst dorm", as the Dean points out, though Marcus claims not to mind -- though he does ultimately abandon it).
All he says he wants to concentrate on are his studies and his weekend job.
Sex is a big problem.
It's almost impossible to have (because of the restrictions on when and where the female students can be in the company of the men, and the watchful eye of the police -- not to mention the general attitudes of all involved) or find, and the Winesburg campus would seem to be a single buzzing hive of pent-up lust -- which Roth does then have violently explode in the end.
Roth revels in this kind of stuff, to the extent that it can get pretty ridiculous:
Prolonged excitation that failed to result in orgasmic discharge could set strapping young men to hobbling about like cripples until the searing, stabbing, cramping pain of the widespread testicular torture known as blue balls would slowly diminish and pass away.
On a weekend night at Winesburg, blue balls constituted the norm, striking down dozens between, say, ten and midnight, while ejaculation, that most pleasant and natural of remedies, was the ever-elusive, unprecedented event in the erotic career of a student libidinally at his lifetime's peak of performance.
There's a lot that's being bottled up and repressed here, and it's no wonder that the characters are prone to excessive releases, whether trying to outrun a train in a car or a masturbatory frenzy of insane proportions.
Marcus, too, isn't completely under control -- though he does remind himself repeatedly that he can't afford to get kicked out of school, because that would mean getting shipped off to Korea.
Marcus finds a girl, Olivia Hutton, but he's in way over his head with her.
She seems to be drawn to his intensity, and on their first date gives him at least a bit of help with that release he so desperately desires with a blow-job.
That's a bit much for the lad to take in; he's not equipped to react properly, and matters aren't helped by the fact that Olivia is a damaged girl, damaged in ways he gets a glimpse of but can't fathom (though it starts with the unimaginable, divorced parents: in Marcus' world, divorce is pretty much unheard of).
The pictures he has of Olivia -- including of her affection and her scars -- also don't turn out to be entirely accurate, to ruinous effect.
Olivia writes to him, wondering:
Why did you come to Winesburg to begin with ?
I'm here because it's so square -- that's supposed to make me a normal girl.
But you ?
You should be studying philosophy at the Sorbonne and living in a garret in Montparnasse.
We both should.
Her girlish delusion doesn't square with Marcus' potential: he may be smart, but he seems unlikely to even know what either the Sorbonne or Montparnasse are, and his ambition -- or at least the extent of his vision -- is fatally limited to Winesburg, Ohio.
Again and again: he can only think so far.
He's a boy waiting to be molded -- pre-law just because that seems a sensible path to take, even if he has no idea where it will lead him.
A cerebral fellow -- book-smart, even if he hasn't read many books yet -- he also is very much his father's son.
He's not a practising Jew, but he can't escape his Jewishness, and neither can he escape his genes.
His mother warns and implores him, but it's way too late:
The Messners aren't just a family of butchers.
They're a family of shouters and a family of screamers and a family of putting their foot down and banging their heads against the wall, and now, out of the blue, your father is as bad as the rest of them.
Don't you be.
You be greater than your feelings.
I don't demand this of you -- life does.
Since Marcus has already mentioned, about a quarter of the way into the book that, oh by the way, he's dead, it's obvious that didn't work out too well.
Called to the dean's office to explain his moving rooms so often, Marcus gets very carried away with self-righteous indignation.
He's a silly boy, of the sort the dean has clearly often had to deal with, and though he doesn't burn all his bridges there he does make a mess of things.
It's a great confrontation -- and even includes a Rothian kowtow to the Nobel Prize so brazen that you can practically feel Roth's desperation in angling for it, blue balls and all --
and while the dean may be a smug man he is, at least, mature, and he has one of Marcus' big problems pegged:
"Of course you may leave.
That's how you cope with all your difficulties, Marcus -- you leave.
Has that never occurred to you before ?"
Little has occurred to Marcus; smart though he is, he's not one for thinking things through.
He acts impulsively, and like his father he is prone to over-reaction.
Marcus isn't the only one who gets into trouble when everything that's bottled up explodes: by the end another character gets themselves killed, and another is committed, and a whole load have been expelled from school.
Sexual repression is one big root of the problem, though that's only the most obvious manifestation of the "constricting rectitude" of the place.
Part of the fun is how easily sweeping Roth's condemnation of it all is: Roth allows for some characters who can thrive in this environment, but just as in the Korean War that's going on at the same time, there are an inordinate number of casualties along the way -- and to what end ? he seems to be asking.
An oddly structured book -- the revelation that Marcus' account comes from the hereafter is very casually introduced, and the perspective is hardly utilised to full or best effect, while Marcus' final fall is presented only as little more than an afterthought (though that actually works quite well) --,
Indignation is also an almost brutally forced comedy.
Roth's vigorous writing easily carries the reader along, but a lot of this stuff is completely off the wall (and occasionally splattered on the wall and everything else ...).
Reveling in bodily fluids -- most notably, almost omnipresently (to the extent it feels almost sacrificial), in blood, but also offering unhealthy doses of ejaculate and vomit -- it has a juvenile feel that can't be explained solely by its young protagonist.
And ultimately it is too messy a book, a weird take on American innocence (both forced and natural) that relies on too many characters who are simply too loudly impulsive -- almost a whole campus-full, near the end.
(Curiously, in Roth's world it's only the men who act out in this self-destructive way; sure, Olivia is a nutcase, but she's only hurting herself, and what other women there are pretty much stand above the fray).
Indignation is a good if sometimes muddled read; certainly, it is confounding.
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Indignation - the film:
Other books by Philip Roth under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary American fiction
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About the Author:
American author Philip Roth (1933-2018) wrote many highly acclaimed works and won numerous literary prizes.
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