Saturday, June 2, 2012

On Philip Roth's Indignation

 My perspective on this book changed, naturally enough, after, about 1/4 or so of the way in, I learned that, seemingly, Marcus is dead. Not having paid sufficient attention to the title of the first part, Under Morphine, I didn't, I admit, glom on to the fact that he was in a deep, deep, drug induced, comatose narrative stream of (un)consciousness. 

Before learning of his death, I thought the book was compellingly tracing the coming of age of a relatively innocent Jewish kid of his own peculiarly, and uniquely Rothian time, place and circumstances.  What had me hooked and what I found so compelling--I hadn't read any Roth in a few years--was the wonder of the absolutely concrete vividness of his writing, the dead on revelation of character through first person narrative, convincing dialogue that is at once vernacular and literary, like Bellow's, though more natural, and the description of events and setting--the butchering done by his father and Marcus too, especially,  

I began reading the book differently, as did most I imagine, on learning of his death. After that, rather than reading of Marcus's specific coming of age, I felt I was reading a tragedy; but until the end I was in suspense at what the unwanted tragic denouement would be-- I didn't know how Marcus was going to come to his end, only, sadly and disappointedly, that it was inevitable.

Over the years, what I haven't enjoyed about some of Roth has been his meta- fiction, so to speak, his explosion of the genre's conventions and of those of realism--I'm thinking of his The Counterlife as a specific example.( I mean nothing evaluative in saying so: I simply prefer verisimilitude in art. ) And so before I got on to the fact of a morphine induced narrative, I thought, "Well, here we go again." But so extraordinarily concrete and lucid did I find the writing and so compelling the characters and so sharply focused the many conflicts, that I didn't much mind. 

Coming on to the novel's end something struck me: no matter how vivid and compellingly interesting and concrete and richly conveyed are Marcus's stepping stones along the way to his coming of age, there was nothing in them of extraordinary implication and power except for two things that to my mind jumped off the pages,  each into a literarily powerful world of its own.

One is his mother's description of his father's terrifying obsessiveness driving her to the unprecedented, unprecedented step, an unprecedented step, of course, for her place and time, of retaining a divorce lawyer and starting to proceed to a divorce.

The second is the amazingly affecting speech given by the college president, arousing in me both agreement with some of its sentiments and, and more, a terrifying revulsion at the bullying, lethal military consequence of student hi jinks, where loss of deferment could and did mean being drafted and then not unlikely maiming or death. 

With that in mind, then, and with what finally turns out to be Marcus's fate, all the stepping stones get recast by context into virtually life and death struggles as inexorable and overarching historical forces and events inform the meaning of each incident in Marcus's coming of age. 

For his father is right: the trivial can lead to calamity of the most awfully tragic disproportion. And so his father's dysfunctional obsessive fear, which itself ruins his and his family's life, is justified by the facts of the world. But that same obsession is itself so obviously life denying. And so the seething indignation, which is ultimately Roth's, at the desecration of the life of the young by war, is palpable.  And, too, I didn't find his excoriation of the consequences of war either polemical or even political; rather I found it outrage in the face of the unavoidably tragic. (On this point I can see arguments the other way.) 

So in contrast to some of Roth's playing around with verisimilitude, his meta fictional deconstructive tricks, as I see them anyway and can live without, are replaced by a cause and effect understandable way of someone, Marcus, ostensibly recollecting and narrating from beyond the grave in the way of an amazingly concrete and linear representation of interiority combined with an intensely rendered external reality. The consequence for me is a tremendously affecting  literary experience, the likes of which I have not had in a while.

Finally,  in one, I think, intended way, Marcus's story is the story of every soldier, every kid, killed in war. So those are my comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment