I just finished Indignation by Philip Roth. It was a quick but unsettling read. Set in the early 1950’s it tells the story of a young Jewish man from New Jersey who, fleeing his overbearing father, ends up at a small college in Ohio. Set against the backdrop of the Korean War, the story chronicles the battles that the protagonist faces in his own life.
Though the narrative arc of the story is quite simple, the characters, their interactions, their intentions, and what happens to them is, upon reflection, quite complicated.
On the one hand I could argue that Roth is telling a story about a protagonist who causes his own downfall. A protagonist who is so indignant that he finds himself time and again at rage’s doorstep. A protagonist who is so lacking in self-awareness that he can’t see either his faults or his potential, his entrapment or his escape route.
On the other hand I could argue that Roth is telling a story about what happens when social forces are so oppressive and restrictive and anxiety unchecked that it literally leads a person to vomit uncontrollably and act out in other, less visceral but equally grotesque ways.
Where does power reside? With the individual who can’t see the path he’s headed down? With the institution that places itself like a boulder on his chest? With a world on the brink of meaningless annihilation?
Roth’s Indignant reminds me of a bumper sticker that says, “If you’re not completely outraged then you aren’t paying attention.” Indignant is a story of wounds– wounds that are self-inflicted and deeply personal, wounds that are the result of oppressive systems, and wounds that come from the bayonet of the faceless enemy.