Indignation: A Sort of Review

A sickening strain of unearned smugness runs rampant on the Litblogs. This we know and accept. Still, when Mark Sarvas posted his review of Philip Roth’s “Indignation” (a review the best sentence within which could not come continent-close, in terms of beauty, or intellectual force, to the weakest sentence in “Indignation”; a review with a glaring factual error indicative of the tiresome possibility that Mark skimmed or skipped the final fourth of the book, if not the whole thing), I felt compelled to post a comment.

 

(Sidebar: Am I a prickly, opinionated arse-nozzle with no interest in playing nice, or in jiving and handjobbing my way to the, erm, “top”? Certainly.)  

 

It wasn’t just the poor quality of Mark’s delusionally gloating review that irritated me, or the fact that Roth deserves much more respect, after approximately half a century of constant work of such an undeviatingly high standard that he can’t possibly have had any kind of a life while producing it: it was the dimwitted, anti-Philip Roth commentary on Sarvas’s site, inspired by his review (and similar reviews, on various Litblogs run by ruthless literary super-geniuses around the Internet), that riled me.

 

So, having just read “Indignation” (with great pleasure), I posted a comment which lasted on Mark’s blog about 12 hours before he saw fit to delete it (following, by the way, a brief email exchange in which Mark implied that we were no longer necessarily secret imaginary friends). Fair enough: it’s Mark’s kingdom to rule as he sees fit.

 

My riled, profanity-free comment went (verbatim):

 

“Indignation” is a brilliant treatise on dissent (and the timeless dangers of non-conformism) delivered in a tragic little parable keyed perfectly (with the dramatic precision of anything by Sophocles) to this our own little fascist-lite era. Roth shows how Herd Law trumps mere truth and logic every time.

 

Yes, sure: riffs, memes, props and gags resurface from earlier works, but to infer from these resonances that Roth is therefore (and not even consciously!) repeating himself is a lazy, self-serving reading of a text that deserves respect on its own terms.

 

“Indignation” is a gem-pretty miniature, like “Everyman” and “The Dying Animal” (my least favorite of these three, btw); that readers keep harping on the “Jewishness” or “Sex” and “Death” in these three books illustrates how *easy* it is to miss the finer points when it serves our purposes to do so. Roth is a subtle, tricky, impeccably clarified writer. Read, and re-read, carefully.

 

The difference between my reading of “Indignation” and the negative reviews I’ve read of the book, thus far, seems to be that I picked it up *expecting* something good. Roth’s success rate in the minting of masterpieces affords me the luxury of giving him the benefit of the doubt when I open one of his books for the first time, and my good faith is usually repaid in spades. Just as Mr. Banville’s was (this time).

 

Roth’s work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (whose is?), however, like it or not, from a merely technical standpoint, he writes most everyone under the table (while making it look like casual work). We don’t have to “like” the Roth artifact to respect the brilliance of its design. And, at what point did Philip Roth become less knowledgeable about his job than every single one of these long-sufferingly hamfisted (and crypto-Oedipal) critiques?

 

Answer: never. 

 

 

Mark was insulted, obviously, and objected to being insulted. But I object to Mark’s insulting Mr. Philip Roth (just as I have objected in the past to his insulting Martin Amis, or James Wood’s insulting of any number of grandly talented writers, including Mr. Don DeLillo). Posting my comment (first at TEV, and now here), is the next best thing to telling him so to his face. Which I surely would, if he lived in Berlin (and with infinitely less agitation than he probably imagines).

 

“Indignation” sees Philip Roth in fine shape. If you’re a fan: read it. If not: abstain. For those undecided: it can’t much hurt to try this crafty little book out.

 

To read enjoyable-yet-painstaking reviews of “Indignation” more professional than either this or Mark Sarvas’s, go here:

 

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/dbafb786-85e0-11dd-a1ac-0000779fd18c.html

 

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21870

 

http://www.latimes.com/features/books/la-ca-philip-roth14-2008sep14,0,311739.story

 

 

Meanwhile, Ted Gioia, at Blog Critics, skipped the last two chapters of the book (or the first page of the penultimate chapter, at the very least) in order to bring us the counterfactual news that “Roth’s strangest twist here is his introduction of a dead protagonist.”

 

Not true: the book’s protag is not “dead”, but dying, whilst narrating his story.  Am I naive enough to believe that the average book reviewer actually reads a book carefully before writing the review? Of course not. But a lacerating “review” in the manner of Mr. Gioia’s is rendered absurd by any evidence of a slapdash reading. Even worse if the review is full of awkward, amateurish riffs such as, “I now wait for the President of the United States to figure in every Roth novel I read, much like Hitchcock making a cameo appearance in his movies, even if (as in Lifeboat) it is only via a newspaper passing through the narrative.” This riff only works if Roth himself (the Auteur) has a cameo role in the considered text, obviously; otherwise the comparison is idiotic. Beyond that, the sentence (like much of Gioia’s review) isn’t even mediocre: it’s  talentlessly ugly. For more of the same:

 

http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/10/02/064420.php

 

Amusingly, Gioia wants to argue the point in the comments section:

 

“There is no mention on p. 225, or anywhere else in this novel, that the story is narrated while the protagonist is in a coma. Instead, we find:

Page 54: “dead as I am and have been for I don’t know how long.”
Page 200: “I knew without a doubt . . . would turn out to be the angel of death.”
Page 226: “Now he was well and truly dead.”

 

But when I tried to post the following response I was giving an “error [40] Banned word” message:

 

 

Page 225. The first two sentences of the  chapter read: “Here memory ceases. Syrette after syrette of morphine squirted into his arm had plunged Private Messner into a protracted state of deepest unconsciousness, though without suppressing his mental processes.”

 

Citing the line, from page 226, “Now he was well and truly dead,” confirms the point that Messner was narrating his story *pre-death*, until death well and truly put a stop to his narrative. When the new narrative voice makes its appearance on page 225, it is to announce that Messner is done telling the story, and to add a layer of exposition that Messner hasn’t revealed, due to denial or incapacity: his fate, location, and the horrific state of his body. When the new narrator takes over, Messner is finally dead. Before that point, the text makes clear (on page 225), he wasn’t dead. All of this information is available in the text.


Not only am I curious as to whether Ted Gioia knows what an unreliable narrator is; I’m curious as to which word, in my blocked comment (above), was banned. Was it “morphine”?

 

                         ********

 

And, finally: what’s heartening about Carlin Romano’s ankle-nipping lunge at “Indignation”, over at the Philadelphia Inquirer (reproduced, following the link, at KansasCity.com), is the proof it provides that smug, self-aggrandizing, half-arsed reviews aren’t peculiar to bloggers:

 

http://www.kansascity.com/402/story/832310.html#recent_comm

 

The comment I left (typo-corrected) in response to the above:

 

Heaven forbid that Carlin Romano should detect any themes in this novella beyond the banal autobiographical resonances easily available to the lightest reading (make that skimming) of it. A novella that features as its key set piece (the set piece in which the protag’s fierce precocity seals a doom foretold) a secularly Jewish freshman taking on the forbiddingly Wasp (paternal like Jupiter) dean of his 1950s-era college, with Bertrand Russell’s classic “Why I Am Not a Christian” speech… can’t possibly have any thematic depths greater than Shiksa sex farce, can it?

 

Romano admits, “As taut campus-novel narrative, “Indignation” is fast-paced, absorbing, disturbing.”

 

Roth is a very strange writer, one supposes, to be able to pull that off and still get such a sneering thumb’s down of a review. Romano then writes, “Roth makes Marcus’ feverish scrutiny of himself, his family and his new campus uniformly energetic, even funny. But figuring out how we’re meant to respond to the book as a whole is not easy….” as though that last bit isn’t, surely, the reader/reviewer’s sole responsibility?

 

Mr. Roth doesn’t need better reviews, one feels, but better, less hungry, reviewers.

****

 

POSTSCRIPT (from the Dept. of the Horse’s  Mouth):

PR: My intention is that he dies twice, as it were. When he’s under the morphine, he imagines he’s dead: he’s conscious of nothing around him, only his memory is active.

JM: And he feels like he’s in the afterlife.

PR: That’s right. He imagines he’s in the afterlife. Then he actually does die, and the memory shuts down. That was just my conceit.

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