Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Monday, June 8: Indignation by Philip Roth

Discussion Leader: Candace Plotsker-Herman

Reserve your copy of Indignation by Philip Roth

What impact can American history have on the life of the vulnerable individual? It is 1951 in America, the second year of the Korean War. A studious, law-abiding, intense youngster from Newark, New Jersey, Marcus Messner, is beginning his sophomore year on the pastoral, conservative campus of Ohio's Winesburg College. And why is he there and not at the local college in Newark where he originally enrolled? Because his father, the sturdy, hard-working neighborhood butcher, seems to have gone mad--mad with fear and apprehension of the dangers of adult life, the dangers of the world, the dangers he sees in every corner for his beloved boy. As the long-suffering, desperately harassed mother tells her son, the father's fear arises from love and pride. Perhaps, but it produces too much anger in Marcus for him to endure living with his parents any longer. He leaves them and, far from Newark, in the midwestern college, has to find his way amid the customs and constrictions of another American world.--From publisher's description.

Interview with Philip Roth from the Barnes & Noble Review (9/12/2008)

Review by Jason Cowley from The Observer (UK) (9/14/2008)
Review by Charles Simic in the NY Review of Books
Biography of Philip Roth
Questions for Discussion from the National Yiddish Book Center

Reviews from the Novelist database (requires login with H-WPL card)

Booklist Review: /*Starred Review*/ In Roth's provocative new novel (his twenty-ninth book)—which, in a quieter, more personal fashion, is as provocative as his astonishing Plot against America (2004)—the setting and the main character are plucked from traditional Roth country: a nice Jewish boy living in Newark in the early 1950s, the son of a kosher butcher. The Korean War rages halfway around the word, but Marcus Messner, conscious though he is of the war and his possible forced participation in it, has a more fundamental concern: staying away from his father, to whom he is extremely close but who has recently become neurotically overprotective. Marcus had been attending a local Newark college, but his father's new craziness over safety compelled him to transfer to bucolic Winesburg College in Ohio, in a conservative Midwest that is foreign country to Marcus. He continues to earn good grades, but the rest of Winesburg life has him befuddled. Not so much because he's Jewish but because he's a free thinker, he wonders, Why do I have to attend chapel? Why should he have to put up with inordinately noisy roommates? And how to fathom the strange but perversely alluring psychological dimensions of the unbalanced girl he's interested in? During this time, male college students walk a tightrope: flunk out of school or be expelled for any reason, and the draft will snap you up. Read this fast-paced, compassionate, humorous, historically conscious novel to learn what that means for Marcus. -- Hooper, Brad (Reviewed 05-01-2008) (Booklist, vol 104, number 17, p6)

Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */ Roth's brilliant and disconcerting new novel plumbs the depths of the early Cold War–era male libido, burdened as it is with sexual myths and a consciousness overloaded with vivid images of impending death, either by the bomb or in Korea. At least this is the way things appear to narrator Marcus Messner, the 19-year-old son of a Newark kosher butcher. Perhaps because Marcus's dad saw his two brothers' only sons die in WWII, he becomes an overprotective paranoid when Marcus turns 18, prompting Marcus to flee to Winesburg College in Ohio. Though the distance helps, Marcus, too, is haunted by the idea that flunking out of college means going to Korea. His first date in Winesburg is with doctor's daughter Olivia Hutton, who would appear to embody the beautiful normality Marcus seeks, but, instead, she destroys Marcus's sense of normal by surprising him after dinner with her carnal prowess. Slightly unhinged by this stroke of fortune, he at first shuns her, then pesters her with letters and finally has a brief but nonpenetrative affair with her. Olivia, he discovers, is psychologically fragile and bears scars from a suicide attempt—a mark Marcus's mother zeroes in on when she meets the girl for the first and last time. Between promising his mother to drop her and longing for her, Marcus goes through a common enough existential crisis, exacerbated by run-ins with the school administration over trivial matters that quickly become more serious. All the while, the reader is aware of something awful awaiting Marcus, due to a piece of information casually dropped about a third of the way in: “And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long...” The terrible sadness of Marcus's life is rendered palpable by Roth's fierce grasp on the psychology of this butcher's boy, down to his bought-for-Winesburg wardrobe. It's a melancholy triumph and a cogent reflection on society in a time of war. (Sept.) --Staff (Reviewed May 12, 2008) (Publishers Weekly, vol 255, issue 19, p37)

Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */ In 1951, Marcus Messner flees his father's steadily debilitating dementia and the overwhelming constraints of family life in Newark, NJ, to the greener and more pastoral setting of Winesburg College in Ohio. After years of working in his father's butcher shop, where he learned to do everything well no matter how much he hated it, he steps into a Kafkaesque setting in which such a lesson is useless in the face of the demands of the college's authority figures. After encounters with arrogant and lazy roommates who won't allow him to study, confrontations with the college dean, and the heartbreak of a failed sexual affair, Marcus learns that he can best survive various challenges in his life—even the book's most surprising challenge—by acting indignantly in the face of them. A meditation on love, death, and madness, Roth's new novel combines the comic absurdity of his early novels like Portnoy's Complaint with the pathos of his later novels like Everyman and Exit Ghost. All libraries will want to add this to their collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/08.]—Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Evanston, IL --Henry L. Carrigan Jr. (Reviewed September 1, 2008) (Library Journal, vol 133, issue 14, p122)

Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ In a plot that evokes the author's earlier work, Roth (Exit Ghost, 2007, etc.) focuses on a young man's collegiate coming of age against the deadly backdrop of the Korean War. The book has a taut, elegant symmetry: A nice Jewish boy named Marcus Messner from Newark, N.J., reaches the turbulent stage where he inevitably clashes with his parents, his butcher-shop father in particular. After continuing to live at home for his first year of college, Marcus, the novel's narrator as well as protagonist, feels the need to emancipate himself by enrolling in a college as unlike urban New Jersey as possible, one that he finds in Winesburg, Ohio. Whatever of his Jewishness he is trying to escape, he discovers that his ethnicity provides the stamp of his identity on the pastoral campus, where he is first assigned to room with two of the school's few other Jewish students and soon finds himself courted by the school's lone Jewish fraternity. There's resonance of the culture clash of Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and the innocence of The Ghost Writer (1979) in the voice of this bright young man, who isn't quite experienced enough to know how much he doesn't know. The novel reaches its climax—in a couple of senses—when the virginal Marcus becomes involved with the more experienced Olivia, whose irresistible sexuality seems intertwined with her psychological fragility. Can Marcus be Olivia's boyfriend and still be his parents' son? Can he remain true to himself—whatever self that may be—while adhering to the tradition and dictates of a college that shields him from enlistment in a deadly war? Is Winesburg a refuge or an exile? A twist in narrative perspective reinforces this novel's timelessness.
(Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2008)