Ruffian on the stair

<strong>Indignation</strong>

Philip Roth

<em>Jonathan Cape, 256pp, £16.99</em>

Reading the opening pages of Philip Roth's latest novel - his 25th or thereabouts, depending on what you count as a novel - you may be struck by the thought that we have been here before. Like the author himself and so many of his protagonists, the narrator, Marcus Messner, is a clever Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, growing up after the Second World War in an atmosphere by now almost fuggy with familiarity: Marcus loves and admires his working-class parents - his father is a kosher butcher - but he bucks under the burden of expectation they place on him; and he is eager to be an American and to gorge on all the experiences America has to offer, including sexually available shiksas. Even the title feels like pastiche Roth: hasn't this always been his guiding emotion? Which of his novels couldn't have been entitled Indignation?

Much of Roth's recent work, since Sabbath's Theater in 1995, could be taken as a gloss on Maurice Chevalier's crack about old age - that it's not so bad, "considering the alternative". Roth's view, expressed in that book and in The Dying Animal (2001), Everyman (2006) and Exit Ghost (2007), could be boiled down to the insistence that these are not alternatives: that between the pain and indignity of age and the oblivion of death, there is little to choose; and that in any case we have no choice - death will come. In Indignation, though, you might detect a kind of softening of this position. This is not a novel about the way death haunts old age, but a novel about the way it haunts youth. Seen from this angle, old age is a tempting but distant prospect.

Death haunts Marcus partly because of the times in which he lives: in his very first sentence he announces the start of the Korean War, on 25 June 1950, and bulletins from the front - the terror of night attacks by screaming Chinese soldiers with butcher-sharp bayonets - puncture the narrative; though, as a college boy, Marcus is immune from the draft. But death haunts him particularly because his father has been seized by a terror - to Marcus, irrational - that his son will die: consumed by anxiety, he scours pool halls, convinced that, left to himself, the boy will fall among low company and led into danger; whereas Marcus, dutiful son and diligent student, is sitting in the local library, poring over The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It is his father's fears that drive Marcus away from the family butcher shop, to college in Winesburg, Ohio - the setting is borrowed from Sherwood Anderson's collection of stories, which paints a town populated by "grotesques" (the inn where the frat boys drink, and where Marcus waits at weekends, is called the New Willard House, after Anderson's main character). Marcus has all the qualities for success - he is intelligent, hard-working, even, as he discovers, attractive, to men and to women; but these very qualities conspire to throw him into conflict with authority; and it is soon clear that his father's fears are not so misplaced, that one way or another Marcus is doomed.

Indignation is at bottom a fable, with a message about arbitrariness: however careful we are, whatever pains we take, we cannot guard against the selfishness and stupidity of others, the rigidity of institutions, our own pride and self-love. This seems surprisingly straightforward for Roth; but his natural deviousness - a vital quality in a novelist - won't be suppressed. A little over 50 pages in, the narrative takes an abrupt twist, and you realise you are not reading the book you thought you were; another twist at the end of the book complicates things further.

Take this passage, in which Marcus recalls working in his father's shop:

It was my job not just to pluck the chickens but to eviscerate them. You slit the ass open a little bit and you stick your hand up and you grab the viscera and you pull them out. I hated that part. Nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done. That's what I learned from my father and what I loved learning from him: that you do what you have to do.

Compare it with a speech Roth gave in 1988, accepting an award for The Counterlife: "This butcher, imagination, wastes no time with niceties: it clubs the fact over the head, quickly it slits its throat, and then with its bare hands, it pulls forth the gut . . . By the time the imagination is finished with a fact, believe me, it bears no resemblance to a fact." Given this, given the book's fictional setting, what can we believe? How literally can we take Indignation?

By Roth's standards, this is a slight, even slack book, with a faint whiff of the bottom drawer about it. But he is a compulsive writer, seemingly unable to produce work that doesn't swirl with oceanic depths of feeling and thought, that isn't drivingly readable.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party