10/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Indignation Review: Philip Roth Does the 1950s

By Philip Roth
Boston; Houghton Mifflin. $26. 256 pp.

The 1950s, the decade of the Red Scare and suburban ticky-tack, was a time of collective sedation. Philip Roth's new novel, Indignation, is set in 1951, and it is appropriate that the book's first and longest section is titled "Under Morphine." Though its 19-year-old narrator, Marcus Messner, believes he is telling his story posthumously, he is merely one of the era's many living dead. The action in Ambrose Bierce's 1890 story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" occurs within the consciousness of a Civil War spy during the moments it takes him to expire by hanging. Similarly, Messner's life flashes through his mind while he lies dying, under morphine.

Recent Roth works - Everyman (2006) and Exit Ghost (2007) - have focused on aging characters who ponder the imminence of extinction. With Indignation, the 75-year-old author almost crosses the great divide. Early in the proceedings, Messner explains that the isolated afterlife in which he thinks he finds himself consists of "memory cogitating for eons on itself." Condemned to an inexplicable blend of No Exit and Groundhog Day, he believes he must spend eternity "Retelling my own story to myself round the clock in a clockless world, lurking disembodied in this memory grotto." Yet what seems eternity is but a few excruciating minutes. Messner is not in hell, only purgatory.

The story that he tells is a parable of thwarted ambition. In high school in his native Newark, New Jersey, Messner was, according to his own account, "a prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student who went out with only the nicest girls, a dedicated debater, and a utility infielder for the varsity baseball team, living happily enough within the adolescent norms of our neighborhood and my school." The only child of a kosher butcher and his devoted wife, he is fixated on graduating valedictorian from Winesburg College, the Ohio school he transfers to to escape his father's crushing concern for his model son's safety. "I wanted to do everything right," says Messner, who ends up doing things fatally wrong. Messner messes up in ways that verify the adage that the best is enemy of the good.

In 1951, the United States, still reeling from the traumas of World War II, is suffering massive casualties in Korea. Male students at Winesburg College know that matriculation means at least temporary sanctuary from a brutal war. The campus is a bastion of conformity and repression, where chapel and ROTC are compulsory and sexual behavior is restricted through curfews and police patrols. Single-mindedly intent on his studies, Messner has no interest in breaking rules. However, an erotically adventurous and emotionally erratic classmate named Olivia Hutton distracts him. And a meeting with the meddlesome dean of men, Hawes D. Caudwell, that is the book's dramatic high point, arouses his indignation.

The Plot Against America reflected the political paranoia of 2004, the troubled election year in which it was published, as much as the tensions in 1940-42, when it takes place. Set against the backdrop of the Korean conflict, Roth's new novel appears when most Americans remain detached from another distant, undeclared war. Following a spectacularly destructive panty raid, Winesburg President Albin Lentz thunders with righteous indignation. When measured against the daily horrors in Korea, he asks his students, "Do you have any idea how juvenile and stupid and idiotic your behavior looks?" For a nation anesthetized by Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, the question is a reminder that IEDs are exploding in Tikrit and Kandahar.

Though his country stands on the verge of war with China, Messner perversely plays, as an obbligato within the concert hall of his mind, a Chinese anthem that proclaims: "Indignation fills the hearts of all of our countrymen." Messner revels in indignation, "the most beautiful word in the English language" - over the indignity of having to eviscerate chickens, over a father who does not trust him to do the right thing, over roommates who are either intrusive or aloof, over the officious Caudwell who subjects him, an exemplary student, to humiliating interrogation. He responds to the dean by spewing forth Bertrand Russell's arguments against religion, as well as the undigested remnants of his lunch.

Indignation - resentment over an affront, real or imagined, to one's esteem - is a function of pride. And pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, the one punished most severely in Dante's ergonomic hell, where sinners are their own scourges. In Roth's purgatorial economy, in which the dying spend psychological eternity brooding over their blunders, indignation is both the consequence and cause of a young man's woes. Messner is a victim of his own refusal to suffer imperfection.

Though perfection is not an attribute of novels, those loose baggy monsters that butcher experience, Roth's brief narrative proceeds with the intensity and efficiency of ancient tragedy. Messner asks his father what his anxiety over his son's wellbeing is all about, and the older man's reply applies as well to Indignation: "It's about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences."