I'm a huge fan of Roth's, and Indignation
is so engaging that I read it entirely in one day. It breaks off from his more recent books, which have focused on older characters facing the end of life. Still, this book, like Everyman, deals with the death of the main character-in this case the death of a 20 year old college student who is narrating his tale from what he thinks is the afterlife.
The book begins with the character essentially recounting what is the inciting incident of the b...more I'm a huge fan of Roth's, and this book is so engaging that i read it entirely in one day. It breaks off from his more recent books, which have focused on older characters facing the end of life. Still, this book, like Everyman, deals with the death of the main character-in this case the death of a 20 year old college student who is narrating his tale from what he thinks is the afterlife.
The book begins with the character essentially recounting what is the inciting incident of the boos, his father suddenly becoming so terrified for his son's welfare that at one point he locks him out of the house. Confronted with his father's increasingly obsessive fears, Marcus decides to leave Newark and go to school in Winesburg, Ohio. Winesburg, Ohio is the title of a coming of age short story cycle by Sherwood Anderson in which a young man, George, grows up and eventually leaves as a young man.
Once there, Marcus confronts a cast of different characters from the gay, antagonistic Bert Flusser, his more successful double Sonny Cottler, to the romantically damaged Olivia Hutton. Marcus faces increasing difficulties at Winesburg, which results in his expulsion and subsequent draft. In fact, Marcus seems to constantly be "drafted" into conflicts-whether it's the sudden attacks of his father's mania or Bert Flusser's masterbatory stalking. Despite his desire to avoid these conflicts, he is unable to escape (foreshadowing his early demise as a casualty of the Korean conflict).
One of the major themes of the book is losing control and the destructive impact such behavior on those around you. It's his father's loss of control that results in Marcus "running away from home." Bert Flusser's inability to control his own behavior (he doesn't wash or change his clothes or turn down his music) drives Marcus from his dorm room. Later, Bert breaks into Marcus's new room and masterbates into all of his clothes making his lack of control overtly violent. When Marcus's new roommate, Elwyn refers to Marcus's love interest as a "c**t", Marcus decides to change rooms rather than engaging him in a discussion about why his statement is wrong. The problems with roommates results in a visit with the Dean and Marcus makes himself a target when he is unwilling to control himself when he confronts the Dean about a variety of different issues. This lack of control is made manifest by Marcus vomiting all over the Dean's trophies at the end of the visit. Marcus is ultimately doomed because he refuses not only to go to Chapel (a requirement of his school), but to make up chapel visits as a form of penance. Could he control his impulses, he could have easily have graduated. Similarly, during the panty raid his classmates, by force, break into several female dormitories and steal panties and masterbate into them. The panty raid is, to some degree, a parallel with the Korean war. After all, the soldiers are exactly the same age as Marcus, an observation made clear by his fear of being expelled lest he be drafted. Furthermore, blood is shed in the passionate spirit of attempting to liberate these ladies garments, which, far from the spirit of independence, is more about a "barbaric pursuit of thoughtless fun" as the president of the university tells the boys during an address.
Olivia, Marcus's romantic interest doesn't escape either. She suffers a nervous breakdown as a result of pregnancy. her inability to control her libido results in a breakdown, which is described by the dean as being a state in which "You have no more control over your emotions than an infant" a statement that could equally apply to the behavior demonstrated in the panty raid or Flusser's masterbatory spree.
Roth has already demonstrated his skill in fusing the historical and the fictional in novel like the Plot Against America and I Married a Communist. Here is no exception. Roth uses the Korean war to highlight some aspects of our current situation. When the president addresses the boys of the school, he harshly declares "beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear. beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily-warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all. Well, you won't be oblivious for long! you can be as stupid as you like, can even give every sign, as you did here on Friday night, of passionately wanting to be stupid, but history will catch up to you in the end." This seems like an apt indictment of what I, as a professor, encounter with college students quite often. The consequences of this "barbaric pursuit of thoughtless fun" are death, but not because of the panty raid, but because of their refusal to learn and engage the problem.
Marcus's fate is set in motion because his main coping mechanism is avoidance-he leaves his house and his rooms when problems surface. He is at college mainly to AVOID THE DRAFT, rather than attempting to confront the problem head on. This avoidance is demonstrated in the panty raid where students either engaged or ignored the raid. The president makes it clear that not one student actually attempted to defend the female residents of the dorms. He demands to know where their manly courage is and how this courage will serve them in Korea if they can't even defend the rights of women at the school. These accusations, the lack of courage and the passionate desire to pursue thoughtless fun, ring true for the current situation America confronts with its young men and women currently. Roth is a master at using historical conflicts to illustrate current ones and does so here. Still, one is left with a touching affection for Marcus who dies at 20.