Consequences of choice

2009-01-07 00:00

Philip Roth’s 29th book, Indignation, is, quite simply, stunning. Written in lean, clean prose and mined with strategically placed shocks and surprises, it is compelling from beginning to end.

Set against the backdrop of the butchery of the Korean War (June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953), which threatens to redirect the destinations and destinies of young Americans, the novel is concerned with the manner in which the choices one makes — apparently ordinary and insignificant, though sometimes foolish — may have devastating, or in Roth’s word, “disproportionate”, consequences.

The protagonist, Marcus Messner, is an earnest young man, an only child and the first member of his family to enter an institution for tertiary education. Prior to his embarking on his studies, he spends seven months working with his father who runs a kosher butchery, whose penetrating blades, carcasses and leaking fluids are a microcosmic reminder of the distant Korean bloodbath. While he loves his father and bonds with him, Marcus has no intention of becoming a butcher or of being butchered in Korea. For these reasons he is single-mindedly diligent and determined in his academic pursuits.

However, as he commences his studies at a local college in Newark, New Jersey, his father, who at 50, nurtures a smoker’s cough, business concerns and Korean War anxiety, becomes neurotic about his son’s well-being and whereabouts and, after a year of obsessive behaviour, drives the boy to seek his education 805 kilometres away at the conservative Winesburg College in Ohio.

If Marcus has been indignant about his father’s over-protectiveness, he is even more indignant about the norms and rules at Winesburg. He finds successive room mates intolerable, resists joining a fraternity, develops an inappropriate and potentially damaging relationship, and objects to prescribed chapel attendance, more on the grounds of his tendency towards atheism than because he is Jewish.

Ironically, he finds articulation for his indignation in the words of the Chinese national anthem, which he learnt at school when the Chinese supported America against Japan during World

War 2. Currently, of course (1951-1952), Chinese Communists, along with their North Korean allies, are slaughtering Americans in the unconventional warfare and harrowing conditions of Korea.

Indignation leads to choices. Choices have consequences. Sometimes “disproportionate”.

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