Friday, October 31, 2008

#12 - "Indignation" by Philip Roth

I've read a couple books by Philip Roth now, including The Human Stain and American Pastoral. I think that Roth is a fantastic writer, and I am not the only one considering how many awards he's won. Indignation is Philip Roth's latest book, published just this September (2008).

Indignation tells the story of Marcus Messner, a young man who grew up in Newark, New Jersey working in his father's kosher butcher shop. The book is set in the early 1950's during the Korean War. When Marcus graduates from high school and starts attending a local city college, his father becomes unleashed and his unbearable overprotectiveness pushes his son away to a small liberal arts college in Ohio after only one year. The book covers just one semester that Marcus spends at Winesburg. The story deals with how Marcus relates to the very Christian and "proper" atmosphere of Winesburg after his youth in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark. It also deals with his first love, school, his relationship to his parents, and his relationship to other students and deans. And in the end, Marcus's life is transformed more by the acts of his country and unfortunate timing than anything that he actually has control over.

There's always something about Roth's books that seem to tie them together. I'm pretty sure I would be able to pick up any of Roth's books that I have not yet read and identify him as the author. Sometimes I feel like his books are deeply personal and I'm gaining insight into how Roth thinks and feels about the world. But then I also always feel like I'm missing something when I read them, but I can't put my finger on what it is. Even though his characters are well-developed and seem wholly believable, I don't think I've ever felt really connected to them. Maybe his characters are just so honest and realistic that it's difficult to read about them and hard to simply accept them.

In thinking about this book, I find it difficult not to compare it with On Chesil Beach, which I just recently read. Both books are written by men, award winning authors, about 200 pages long, and both books are tragic. In fact, the tragedy in both of these books stem from the smallest of actions and deeds taken or not that change the course of young peoples' lives. However, the feeling I got from these two books was completely different. I felt that On Chesil Beach was a book that was filled with love and lost chances. It was tragic, but also cathartic and almost a call to be closer and say the important things to the ones you care about. Indignation, on the other hand, was a much more negative, angry story, almost a shout of frustration to the powers that be about the suffering and loss their society has wrought. Perhaps the main difference is that the characters in On Chesil Beach, although they were unwittingly thrown into circumstances by others and the era they were living in, had the power to avoid their tragedy. But Marcus Messner, although he was also affected by others and the era, was simply dragged into the end of his story by an unreasonable society.

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