Sunday, October 5, 2008

Indignation

I like the new Philip Roth. Is this surprising? There was a time, several years ago, when I thought the recent Zuckerman trilogy might be some kind of swan song--a late-career resurgence that would be followed by a sighing decline. I'm embarrassed to admit this now, but Roth is the kind of writer whose excellence would seem hard to sustain for more than half a century: unlike, say, Alice Munro, whose genius is steady and reliable, Roth's, since the late seventies, has been uneven. All his books are good, but some are thrilling, and when he started ramping it up around the time of Sabbath's Theater, and kept it there for three more in a row, it was easy to imagine he might soon take a bow and walk off the stage.

Nope. There have been, what, five novels since then?, all of them stunning in one way or another, particularly last year's Exit Ghost. This one is a surprise--no familiar characters, no old men, and most of it takes place at a college in Ohio. Our first-person protagonist, Marcus Messner, is a butcher's son from Newark. When he begins college in a small Newark school, his father begins to worry about him--so much so that it becomes a kind of sickness. When Marcus is out late one night studying, his father becomes fixated on the idea that he is out playing pool, and double-locks the door against him. This event precipitates Marcus's transfer to Winesburg College, a day's bus ride away.

The book is set against the backdrop of the Korean War, in which Marcus is terrified of being killed; his plan is to graduate first in his class, become an officer, and avoid combat. So far it's a rich, if simple, story--but fifty pages in, Roth does something shocking. I'm gonna spoil this small surprise, so if you care, stop reading. But in the wake of the book's pivotal event (I am delighted to tell you that it is a blow job), we get this:

What happened next I had to puzzle over for weeks afterward. 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.

There's your novel, right there. The blow job comes from Olivia Hutton, a willowy gentile with razor scars on her wrist, lots of sexual experience, and a violent aversion to talking about her father. Marcus's relationship with her lies at the center of a series of accidents and misjudgements (including clashes with the Dean, a lunatic roommate, a quickly declining father back in Newark, and a dalliance with a Jewish fraternity) which do indeed lead to death.

This death--Marcus is telling the story from a kind of athiest purgatory, and the act of remembering consumes his consciousness; it's easy to see this riffing as Roth's contemplation of the novelist's creative dream-state: "...Would death have been any less terrifying if I'd understood that it isn't an endless nothing but consisted instead of memory cogitating for eons on itself? Though perhaps this perpetual remembering is merely the anteroom to oblivion." So we get this, but mostly we get Marcus's wild descent into his doom. Olivia's disturbed, if poised, lasciviousness gives way, toward the book's conclusion, to a campus-wide panty raid; Marcus's visiting mother complains about his declining father, "I cannot sleep beside him in the bed anymore." Marcus finds his dorm room ransacked, and anointed with semen. In each case we see sexual urges deflected, reflected, and perverted, and if gives you to wonder if plain old wholesome sex is even something that exists in Roth's world.

Well, if it doesn't, that's fine by me. Marcus is so cheerful and energetic in charting his own death spiral that the book is actually kind of a delight to read; Rhian kept coming into the room and asking me what I was chortling about. I feel as though this was an easy one for Roth; it's like watching Emeril Legasse make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In any event, Roth is still on fire, and I did something with this book I haven't done in many, many years (and haven't had the time to do): I opened it up, sat down, and read the whole thing, cover to cover, without interruption. The fact that I would want to should tell you something.

11 comments:

rmellis said...

I've never been a big fan of the literary blow job, and though I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, I thought the sex was... yuck.

This ain't going to be an Oprah book anytime soon...

jrlennon said...

It's true, there was an awful lot of jism in this book. But in its defense, it was about an 18-year-old boy. I mean c'mon, ya know.

Hey and I'm sure Oprah appreciates a little oral sex as much as the next girl, right?!?

Warren Adler said...

Philip Roth? One of my favorite authors. A great contemporary writer. Simply put, one of the best we've got. Thanks for the post. I'll have to check this one out.

zachary-cole said...

Hmm...I've never read any of Roth's previous works so this books sounds like a nice time to jump in (I skipped through most the spoilery stuff).

On the other hand, my bookshelf is running is post-full. I bought a cheap copy of "Primary Colors" yesterday, and an even cheaper copy of "On the Night Plain" is trickling through the New England postal system. Decisions, decisions...

jrlennon said...

Definitely choose Roth over Joe Klein, and yes, over me even! He is a goldmine of great novels. Two recent good ones that you don't need to have read other books to fully appreciate are "The Human Stain" and "The Plot Against America"...I think they're both better than this new one, as good as the new one is.

k. said...

Yeah, at this point I can no longer be surprised by any appearance of semen in a Philip Roth novel. Especially after that cemetery scene in Sabbath's Theater. And I think Rick Moody was trying to give him a run for his money with all the jism in The Ice Storm.

All that aside, I really liked this one. On one hand, it seemed like something new for Roth (the virgin narrator telling the story "posthumously"), but on the other hand, the same old Roth.

I thought the ending was damn good. Although that "historical note" wasn't needed.

These books just pour out of him. He's already finished another book that will be published in '09. Dude is unstoppable.

Also: I like how Shakespeare always pops up in Roth books. For my money, American Pastoral is still the best version of King Lear out there. Sorry, Jane Smiley.

AC said...

So the college is in Winesburg, Ohio? Any connection to the Sherwood Anderson novel?

jrlennon said...

There really is a Winesburg, Ohio, but confusingly it's not the town that inspired the Sherwood Anderson book. I don't know if there's really a college there--I suspect not. He couldn't possibly have chosen that name by accident though!

k., yeah, I love the Shakespeare in Roth, especially Exit Ghost.

Andrew said...

I started reading Everyman, which like all of Roth's books has a cover splashed with rave reviews. But I got stuck after 10 pages or so. The beginning is supposed to be speeches by different people, but it didn't read like actual voices at all. Roth could've taken some useful tips from Garrison Keillor on this one, I think.

jrlennon said...

It's interesting, I was talking to Rhian about this very thing--Roth does not to what I tell a lot of students to do, and that is to make different people talk differently. His characters do indeed all sound like Roth, most of the time--he seems to have no patience for artful dialogue, or even dialogue that sounds like speech. He also sometimes doesn't even bother physically describing characters--"Indignation" is two thirds over before we know that the narrator's mother is extremely tall.

I don't see this as a weakness of Roth's, but rather a quality of him. That said, "Everyman" didn't thrill me either.

Andrew said...

Once I've read enough by a writer, I can get used to stylistic weaknesses. I just adapt in my expectations and appreciate what is there. For example, when I read a play by Shaw, I'm not disappointed by the lack of realism in his characters' interactions; I love the dialogue for what it is. So I can certainly respect that Roth's book can be admired for what it is. Still, those blurbs were over the top. (Unlike the blurbs on my books, which really mean something...)