Philip Roth's Latest Novel

"Indignation," Philip Roth's latest novel, creates its own literary category: the perfect nightmare. Set in 1951, at the height of the Korean War, the story of Marcus Messner's sophomore year in college begins, like all the best bad dreams, well within the precincts of realism. Marcus, the son of a Newark butcher, has transferred to Winesburg College in Ohio from Newark's own Trent College because his father has become overbearing, quizzing his son about his every move, locking him out of the house if he's even a little late, searching the pool hall when his son doesn't even shoot pool. Who wouldn't want to get away from such a tyrant? Who wouldn't sympathize with young Marcus, who is, as befits a young man who was captain of his high-school debate team, always reasonable, always logical?

This being a Philip Roth novel, you are right to assume that logic and sweet reason are not going to carry Marcus very far. First, things get strange. On page 54, Marcus happens to mention that he is dead—not metaphorically or spiritually, but dead as in deceased. He is narrating from beyond the grave. Not long thereafter, the story turns downright ugly. Marcus runs afoul of the boorish, bigoted dean of men. His beautiful girlfriend turns out to be a failed suicide with a slew of problems in tow. He takes what he thinks is savvy advice from an upperclassman that in fact paves the way to his ruin. But then, there does not seem to be a path that Marcus Messner could have taken to spare him all his grief. Nothing and no one, certainly not the narrator, is reliable in this dark, airless tale, whose meaning seems to be that there is no meaning, that all is chance, randomness and terror. It's a bleak book, even by Roth's standards, and as sharply honed as one of those butcher-shop knives that haunt Marcus's dreams. If this is a hard book to love, it's a lot harder to forget.