IN PERSON, 75-year-old Philip Roth seems anything but indignant. Seated on a couch in the inner sanctum of his agent’s office, he is soft-spoken, prone to long, thoughtful pauses. Even his clothing -- khaki pants, brown shoes, an Oxford shirt with a light check -- is almost strikingly nondescript. Where, one wonders, is the fire-breathing ventriloquist of “Portnoy’s Complaint” or the self-reflexive vaudevillian of the Zuckerman trilogy?
The answer is the same as always: on the page. Roth’s latest work of fiction is “Indignation” (Houghton Mifflin: 256 pp., $26). Like many of its predecessors, it contains more than its share of mounting wrath. As we begin our conversation, I suggest that the title would be appropriate for any number of his novels. Is Marcus Messner, the 19-year-old protagonist, truly any more ticked off than, for example, the infuriated hero of “Sabbath’s Theater”?
“Oh, he’s not nearly as indignant as Mickey Sabbath,” Roth replies. “Nobody could be as indignant as that. I suppose there are shades and degrees of complaint. Still, the title seemed appropriate here. And sure, you could call the other books ‘Indignation 1,’ ‘Indignation 2' and so forth. ‘The Indignation Chronicles.’ ”
What prompted the author, who has chronicled the woes of advancing age in his recent work, to produce a novel about a college freshman? “In the previous several books I’ve written,” he says, “the guys were getting older and older. I just wanted to change the perspective for myself. Also, I had never written anything that took place at that moment, during the Korean War. I was curious to see what I could do with it.”
This brings up a major shift in Roth’s methodology. During the first half of his long career, his books seemed to emerge from a personal state of emergency. Now, however, he is more apt to be inspired by historical moments. What has brought about this change?
“Getting older,” Roth says, echoing his earlier comment about his protagonists. “Seeing things from a historical perspective -- which I couldn’t when I was in my 30s and 40s. Just as you see your own past more clearly, you see the national past more vividly.”
“Indignation” is an exploration of both the personal and national past. The novel takes place in 1951, when many of Roth’s contemporaries were being slaughtered on the battlefields of the Korean peninsula. Like the author, Messner has fled Newark, N.J., for a small Midwestern college. In his autobiographical “The Facts,” Roth chalked up his departure to his father’s paternal zeal. Messner’s father, too, has taken on the mantle of the overprotective parent, “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.”
At tiny Winesburg College (the name is surely a nod to Sherwood Anderson’s vision of the gentile heartland), the upright Messner is swiftly introduced to the mysteries of the flesh. He also begins to rebel against the stolid conformity of the place. Yet he has little of Portnoy’s madcap intransigence, even when the dean accuses him of being a kind of outside agitator.
“What is he?” Roth speculates. “I don’t know that he’s a malcontent. He’s out of sync with his environment, whether it’s his home environment and his father, or the college, with its rules and regulations. The dean is simply a more well-groomed version of his father.”
Messner is, in other words, a good boy. This makes him an odd bird in Roth’s universe, where the flouting of parental authority is an almost universal itch. What’s more, “Indignation” concludes with a strange reassertion of that authority. The protagonist has gotten his comeuppance (and much, much more), and learned the lesson that his “uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.” Can Roth really be suggesting that father knows best?
“Well, the irony is there,” he concedes. “But what I’m interested in here, as in the other books, is the unforeseen catastrophe. Messner’s father has, as it were, a premonition, which is based on nothing but his fear and anxiety. I was really pointing to a general subject.”
“Indignation” will be the fifth of Roth’s novels to be made into a film. I ask what he thought of the earlier adaptations, and he gives high marks to Jack Klugman and Ali MacGraw in “Goodbye, Columbus,” while ruefully acknowledging the cartoonish tone: “A little vulgarity goes a long way, and they did lay it on pretty heavily.” And what about Ernest Lehman’s version of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which brought back Richard Benjamin for a second turn as the author’s cinematic proxy? “Unspeakable,” Roth declares. “It’s a movie about shouting. Jewish shouting.” (He proceeds to give a brief, comical example, which strikes me as a specimen of literary history, like Thoreau demonstrating how to peel the bark off a birch tree.)
In any case, Roth seems fairly insulated from the big screen. The same thing might be said of television, the Internet and various other conduits of cultural ephemera. He still lives up in rural Connecticut, although he has recently begun spending the winter in New York City. He still writes seven days a week and has yet to discover any authorial shortcuts: “It’s neither more nor less difficult than it’s always been.”
In short, he leads the sort of quasi-monastic existence that would do Zuckerman proud. No doubt he has gained a ferocious level of concentration -- how else do you write 29 books and counting? But one wonders whether his splendid isolation has cut him off from the three-ring circus of contemporary American life. The question is especially relevant because it was Roth, back in 1960, who famously declared that “the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality.”
Has this task become any easier?
Roth has a surprising answer. “Fifty years ago,” he says, “the serious writers -- the best writers -- were not terribly engaged by the immediate present. That was left to competent journeymen: Herman Wouk, Leon Uris, Allen Drury. But now the situation has changed. I would use 9/11 as an example. People feel challenged by it. How can they do it, how can they work it in?”
He is quick to add that he hasn’t actually read the crop of post-9/11 novels. Indeed, he rarely reads much fiction at all. “I read history and politics and biography. I do go on small binges of reading writers who meant a great deal to me a long time ago. But I haven’t kept up with my younger contemporaries.”
And so it goes: the author in his New England fastness, indulging in an occasional game of baseball on television but mostly sorting through the facts. It sounds like a dutiful existence.
It sounds, too, like Roth’s description of the afterlife in “Indignation”: “Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae? Who could have imagined that one would have forever to remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component?” Being dead, I suggest to Roth, seems indistinguishable from being a writer. He laughs and draws a vital distinction: “Well, we’re the living dead.”
James Marcus is the author of “Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut” and blogs at House of Mirth (housemirth.blogspot.com).