Book review: Indignation, by Philip Roth

originally posted elsewhere: February 16, 2010

tl;dr: Coming of age as an outsider: should one fight or adapt?...

Philip Roth, as usual, draws upon his well-known personal history (growing up in the Jewish district of Newark, attending a secularized Christian college / university in the 1950s) in Indignation to create a short novel that is effectively a coming of age story from an outsider's perspective. Indignation poses many interesting questions (it would make a great book for discussion in a book group), and answers some of them in an especially over-the-top ending. Besides the typical coming of age questions about how to act upon the body's desires (given 1950's mores), the main questions posed in Indignation revolve around whether and how the individual should modify his behavior to adapt to the people and society around him, in order to successfully navigate through that society and ultimately survive and thrive.

Looking back at the book, I am amazed by how much ground Roth managed to cover in a little over 200 small pages. Each scene contributes masterfully not only to the development of the story, but to the questions Roth is posing and answering. As with everything that Roth produces, Indignation has layered meaning and can be read on several levels: as a potboiler, as a fictional account of the travails of a Jewish young man, or more broadly as an account of an outsider (and aren't we all outsiders, in one environment or another) attempting to adapt or remain true to one's beliefs. I felt the first half of the book was nearly perfect, but once events started unfolding in the second half, I felt that Roth took the scenes a little beyond what was necessary to convey his points. Sometimes Roth lacks subtlety.

Philip Roth is one of the most honored American writers in the past 50 years, and Indignation again shows why Roth has earned his reputation. Roth fans should relish this short book, and it could serve as a good introduction to Roth for those who have not read him before. Roth is best in longer novel form, where he has even more space to allow his imagination and prose to roam. Indignation is not Roth's all-time best, but it definitely is worthwhile reading. Unlike some artists who continue to produce well past their peak, Roth should keep writing for as long as his body and mind permit.