Indignation by Philip Roth

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Indignation by Philip Roth

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A pleasant and slightly quirky tale of an awkward college student in early 1950s America. It might not be what the Roth fan was expecting, but I don't see any fault in that.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099523420

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It is 1951, and Marcus Messner is moving from being a son and apprenticed heir to a kosher butcher, to being a conscientious, hard-working and diligent college student. Very soon, however, he is moving to a different college hundreds of miles from his Newark home, to get away from his father's stifling concerns, which seem to border on paranoia. His new college has traditions, requirements, fraternities, girls, morals and rules that all serve as a trap for Marcus - he cannot understand them, and easily make him snap.

It's not all he ends up doing, however. In among his quoting Bertrand Russell and working himself up to a vomitous frenzy, reported dialogue shows him hammering desks, prodding at people and air with his fingers, and probably more. What we are dealing with, it seems, is an angry young man before his time.

What we are dealing with, it seems, is a slight comic campus novel - a genre that you would think has long gone. This is not all true, however. It's not slight - there are too many features, from generational post-WWII strife down, and far too much character in Marcus and others to warrant the description. It's not out of its time either, with some thematic concerns, and a lot of energy and freshness that makes it feel very modern.

It certainly can be shelved as a campus novel, however, as, in a most pleasant way, it teaches us all we need to know about college life circa 1951, and drops in the history where relevant of those times - the evident demons both on campus and without its ivied walls, as the Korean war gets going, and all the young men hide from the dreaded C word.

It soon occurred to me this is one of those books that one can read either straight or funny. It will lose nothing, like the best of them, if one fails to read it as sarcastic, insincere and arch, and instead assume the narration is told with honesty, and give it a straight reading. Here, however, the character is too much of an unreliable narrator (even though he says often he will only do things well, if at all), and there is too much bordering on farce, and comedy of manners, for us to be mistaken for long. The author's intent is more than clear enough.

This then is a sprightly, lively work of fiction, with a very strong way under the skin of a rather weak character, which marked this out for me. It didn't leave me with the feeling this was a hundred per cent lifelike, but it was very likeable for all that. It looks a novella but reads like a novel, which I also enjoyed. It was my first Roth, and only proves my long-held theory that one should approach the works of classic authors like him through their more frivolous and quirky works to get the best entertainment.

I must thank Vintage Books' kind people for my review copy.

For more of nineteen-fifties America, you might like to try Home by Marilynne Robinson. You might also enjoy Byron Easy by Jude Cook.

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