Review of Philip Roth's "Indigination"
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.
Labels: indignation, philip roth
Bad Bunni posted at 8/04/2010 03:13:00 AM
Threshold of Revelations: Job's Lament
After watching the movie, it was time to go up to bed. This was something that annoyed me. Asshat couldn't make it up stairs without help so my mother would have to help her boyfriend up, not one, but two flights of stairs all the while also lugging his air tanks all because he refused to have things set up in the bedroom. Why? Because he things to be the way they were. He still didn't accept that things were never, ever going to be the way they were again. He was trying to cling to his life as a healthy person, and while he was still alive, his life as a healthy person was already over.
I went up ahead of them to have a little bit of a snack before bed. While I was in the kitchen I head the two of them talking. I had thought they had gone up, but no. Asshat was sitting in a rocking chair by stairs (placed there by my mother for this reason), he was struggling to breathe and saying to my mother "Why is God doing this to me? Why is God doing this to me?" My mother was bent over him trying to soothe him.
Like Job, he isn't asking for his suffering to end, just for a reason. The universal question, "Why me?" Of course the answer is "It is not your place to question or understand. It is your place to accept." On some level, it's a practical answer. God isn't going to open the clouds a la Monty Python and Holy Grail and say "Well, here's the reason." So just accepting what is happening seems like the best advice. And could there even be a reason good enough?
I've struggled with the why question myself. The type of cancer I had was idiopathic* up until a few years ago. Then, thanks to the human genome project, the cause was discovered-a random malformation of a single gene. Pure chance, bad fucking luck, that was it. Now I had the answer. Did I feel anymore satisfied?
Absolutely not. So while I understand the cautionary tale of Job, I also know the advice offered is absolutely impossible to take.
I felt almost assaulted by the intimacy between them. My mother had soothed me in rocking chairs as a child. She had rocked with me as I wailed from ear infections and strep throat until I calmed down. Now she was doing it again with her boyfriend. They didn't even notice me standing there before I ran back into the kitchen to pour myself a large glass of ultra calming vodka.
My initial reaction was pure rage. I sat in the kitchen, seething. I wanted to be God's proxy and say, "Listen you chucklehead, this has nothing to do with me.
YOU CHOSE TO SMOKE LIKE A CHIMNEY FOR 40 YEARS AND YOU'RE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW BETTER so sorry your spin on the roulette wheel didn't at all work out. But it's not like divine providence forced you to smoke. This is the result of your own deliberate decisions. Not to mention, you've had a fantastic life for the last 60 years. Do you know how many people (including the 30 year old in the next room) would GLADLY suffer from lung cancer if they could only have half the life you have had? More than that tiny brain of yours could probably handle. So do me a favor. Accept your own culpability. Appreciate what you have while you still fucking have it. Now, if you don't mind you self centered prick, I now have to go listen to the prayers of some parents with infants in NICU."
Now I know this reads like David Mamet rewriting the Bible.
Part of my rage came from the fact that I got six months of health. Six months. Not sixty years. Not even one year. And my cancer wasn't brought on by my own acts. I was filled with a lot of righteous "HOW DARE HE?!"
But underneath that rage was the horror of watching my mother witness this. That she went through this every night, and she would continue to go through it until the end. The tremendous strength of her to do this, uncomplaining, unflinching.
Part of the reason it takes me so long to write these entries is I end up sobbing every time I write about this. I didn't cry when my father died. Not one tear. Not even at the funeral listening to my mother cry behind me. Where did that girl go? What is it about this?
How many times did my mother soothe me in a rocking chair while I wondered why God, who I believed in at that point, had done this to me? How many times did I think an answer to that question would be better than a cure? How many times do I hate myself for struggling up a flight of stairs? Every time. Every step. Feeling absolutely helpless-a victim of my own body. My body-the enemy. That antagonist that had to be fought and who retaliated with pain. And now I was reliving it by watching someone else go through it.
In the end, I stayed in the kitchen until the rage subsided. Afterwards I walked out the front door. It was a beautiful night outside. It was cool and clear. So many stars that it was shocking. I forgot what the night looks like in the country. The frogs, toads, crickets, grasshoppers, and other assorted critters were making a near deafening racket. I sat outside and felt sad that instead of enjoying the simple pleasure of the night, we stayed inside and watched a movie. Out here simple mindless life is going on-stars sparkling, crickets chirping-without any awareness of what was happening in the house, without any concern. The crickets and the stars had no answer except to keep going until you can no longer. Keep going.
* idiopathic means there is no known cause for the disorder
Labels: cancer, death, dying, god, lung cancer
Bad Bunni posted at 8/01/2010 11:55:00 PM