For the first 25 pages or so of Philip Roth's suspenseful, sad new novel, a reader could be forgiven for wondering if Nathan Zuckerman really is dead. Zuckerman—one of contemporary literature's most fruitful alter egos and a fixture in the majority of Roth's books since 1979—expired in last year's otherwise minor novella Exit Ghost. Still, Marcus Messner, the hero/narrator of Indignation, will seem awfully familiar to even casual Roth readers: a dutiful Jewish son whose father's defining trait is smothering fear of the outside world; a "prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student" chafing at his parental constraints; and, obviously, a Newarker who leaves the nest in search of his great liberty (and a crazy shiksa) in an America of limitless opportunity. The Jewish-generation-gap trope is inscribed in so many of Roth's best books—treated earnestly in Goodbye, Columbus; satirized mercilessly in Portnoy's Complaint; inverted in The Professor of Desire; tragedized in the Zuckerman trilogy; postmodernized in The Counterlife; subtextualized but never fully sidelined in the American trilogy of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain (all of which are narrated and imagined by Zuckerman)—that it's easy at first to overlook the essential distinction at work in Indignation. Marcus and his family are easy to recognize; it's the America they live and die in that has changed.
Because the Messners and the Zuckermans—to say nothing, of course, of the Roths (fictive and otherwise)—inhabit the same town at the same time, it's safe to assume that the author isn't revising history so much as viewing it through the refractory lens of today's broken America, which the hopeful strivers of Roth's earlier books could never have imagined. "Though I never doubted this country was mine," Roth wrote in his problematic antimemoir The Facts, "I was not unaware of the power to intimidate that emanated from the highest and lowest reaches of gentile America." Indignation, following in the tradition of The Plot Against America, imagines that power as insurmountable.
Where his predecessors were strivers breaking free of outsider constraints by virtue of their birthright not as Jews but as Americans, Marcus is simply a victim of his own rebellion. Where Zuckerman found literary glory, Marcus finds antagonism and death (spoiler purists be calmed: We learn fairly early on that most of the book is narrated from a deathbed; you're supposed to know). And while it may be tempting to ascribe Marcus's death in a Korean foxhole at age 19 to something abstract like fate, Indignation is neither a fable nor a cautionary tale. It offers a clear course of events issuing from its protagonist's stubborn refusal to be constrained by his identity. He's not a tragic hero, because he never gets a chance to be great. He's just a casualty of a world he cannot will himself into belonging to—perhaps the greatest indicator of just how different he is from Zuckerman and his mastermind.
Marcus's failure to belong isn't surprising. The son of a kosher butcher, he leaves Newark when his father suddenly goes "crazy with worry that his cherished only child was as unprepared for the hazards of life as anyone else entering manhood, crazy with the frightening discovery that a little boy grows up, grows tall, overshadows his parents, and that you can't keep him then, that you have to relinquish him to the world." But while the father's fears are oppressive, they're motivated—as much by his son's maturation as by the Korean War ("American troops had never fought in a war more frightening than this one") and the encroachment of the neighborhood's first supermarket onto the turf of the butcher shop where Marcus has learned to eviscerate chickens and scoop out their blood. By contrast, Marcus's yearning for independence is inarticulate—he has no calling to be an artist or a great thinker; he just wants out. And out he gets, about as far out from a Newark kosher butcher shop as he can: Winesburg College in Ohio (an allusion not only to Sherwood Anderson's stories, but to the vivid reality of WASP "grotesques" they evoke), a Baptist school where his impulse to be strident finds a perfectly inhospitable target. Marcus clashes with inconsiderate roommates, pushy fellow students, the fatuous dean of men, and, toxically, a girl named Olivia whose sexual experience and scarred wrist offer more complex temptation than he can handle. Against this backdrop, and with the aid of Marcus's indignation, the father's indignant fears—appendicitis, a fatal car crash, a panty raid that becomes a bloody sex riot, the threat of the draft—all take grim form. They almost seem wise.
One of the perils of being a close Roth reader is the often-irresistible assumption that he spends his life conjuring up ways to tantalize his audience by blurring the distinction between autobiography and fiction. But as years have gone on, his interest in the infinite mutability of the self has expanded into a consideration of the self as a shadow on the cave wall of American history. Marcus Messner is not much of a hero; the book's title word, drawn from the anthem of the People's Republic of China, is his only real trait. But, as Roth pointed out in his recent webcast (projected at bookstores around the country in lieu of a book tour), indignation is the only thing that unites Marcus with the world he occupies. It also spells his downfall.