Philip Roth: Indignation

In September, upon the publication of Philip Roth's twenty-ninth book, Indignation, I spoke with the author via telephone. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview -- a sequel of sorts to the conversation we had one year ago about his previous novel, Exit Ghost. -- James Mustich

James Mustich: Your new novel, Indignation, is set in 1951, the second year of the Korean War. Like many of your novels, it begins with a very strong voice. Which leads me to ask a question about the gestation ofIndignation in particular, but one that I'd like to extend to your fiction in general: is the narrative voice often the catalyst of the work? Do you hear it in your head and follow its lead, or is the creative process sparked by some overarching decision as to period, character, or situation?

Philip Roth: Each book is different. Something has to get you started, but it's never the same thing. In this book, it was the time, the era, that moment: the Korean War. When I finished my last book, Exit Ghost, and began looking for a new book to write, I thought, "What period of history that I've lived through have I not paid attention to?" It was this period of the Korean War, which started in June 1950 and ended in 1953, and those are the years that I was myself a college student. So I began by watching the eight-part PBS documentary on the Korean War, which they made some years ago, called The Forgotten War (it's very good); I was trying to refresh my recollection. Then I read quite a few books about the war, various aspects of it, to get myself in the mood of that time.

From there, I went to the place -- a college campus, because I was on one at that time and I could vouch for what it was like. But also because of what it was like. That is, rules and regulations reigned, and one accepted these rules and regulations as the way things were without quite understanding the nature of them, or why they were in place. Then I fell on imagining the action of the novel and the hero.

JM: The book starts with the narrator's description of his Newark boyhood, especially the vividly depicted butcher shop that his parents operate. The reader is drawn into this small world that is then enlarged, as the book progresses, by the sense of historical period you create. In a way, the period takes over as the story moves along, culminating in the epic and fatal panty raid that is the climax, so to speak, of Marcus's year at Winesburg College in Ohio. In its aftermath, the president of the university addresses the students (he's pretty indignant himself) and proclaims: "Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily -- warfare, bombings, whole slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all." That called to mind something you once said about how we are raised not only by our parents and families, but by the country as well. It's easy to read this book as the story of one kid who is rebelling against his parents, but part of what you're getting at seems to be that larger forces -- the country and the cultural climate of the time -- exert their own formative influence. What was peculiar about being raised by the country in this particular period?

PR: You mention the college president's remark: "You're oblivious of it all." That obliviousness was part of the times. You can oppose it to the Vietnam War era, when students were not oblivious of what was going on at all -- it impinged upon them and they responded to it, often loudly and aggressively. In the Korean War period, there isn't that kind of responsiveness. The rules and regulations really are in charge of the students; it was those rules and regulations that I wanted to dramatize in Marcus's story. Because after all, he's a good kid; he doesn't do anything wrong. Yet he is repeatedly cast in the role of a semi-criminal because he can't take the surveillance. It begins with his father's surveillance at home, when his father becomes a maniacal overseer, and it continues with the surveillance of the college. Surveillance was the name of the game then, and I wanted to characterize the era through Marcus's adventures under that scrutiny.

JM: The surveillance certainly put a damper on certain impulses.

PR: Yes. And that's what is interesting to me -- not just the depiction of that era against the backdrop of the war, which suddenly becomes the foreground at the end, but also the nature of the sexual repression that Marcus is himself marked by; because when he finally has sex, of a kind, he can't believe it happened, and can't bring himself to talk to the girl again. That's pretty strong medicine, and it's a result of having not only just imbibed the rules, but also a result of the boundaries being so narrow as to what kind of sexual adventure one can have -- some things are not even possible, they're not even matters of fantasy. It's an entirely different world of sexual norms from the one that came into existence in the late 1960s, and the kind young people now have in 2008. I would think that any interested young person who reads this book would be startled by what the erotic world looked like in the 1950s.

JM: And startled by what it felt like to a young man living through them. There's a wonderful passage -- it's probably three-fifths of the way through the book -- in which Marcus is speaking with his mother, and she tells him not to be like his father: "You be greater than your feelings. I don't demand this of you -- life does. Otherwise you'll be washed away by feelings. You'll be washed away and never seen again." Do you think it's fair to say that the feelings threatening to overwhelm Marcus are exaggerated, if they are not in fact created, by the strictures he senses imposed upon him -- first by his father's overbearing worry, and then by the college Dean's suspicion concerning Marcus's room changes? The latter leaves Marcus feeling, as he puts it himself, like a criminal.

PR: The criminalization -- the seeming criminalization of certain aspects of behavior is, in part, the theme of the book. Here's this good boy, a hard-working boy, an excellent student, who is under the gun for having moved from his room twice. Nothing happened.

JM: How did you conceive of the ultimate explosion against the college's rules and regulations and the sexual repression of the era -- the epic panty raid that convulses the campus and leads, despite its inherent comedy, to such tragic consequences?

PR: First of all, panty raids were a fact of life back then, although not on the campus where I was -- that's how repressed it was there!

JM: Which college was that?

PR: Bucknell. Still, I think at small liberal arts colleges across the country, the mood was more or less like that at my fictional Winesburg, and these panty raids took place. They were great explosions against repression -- childish, but sexual. When I got near the end of the book, I needed a spectacle, I thought. I needed to break out of the small drama of these people, and I needed something that attached the book to the era, and it seemed to me that panty raids did.

JM: There's a certain humor, to me, in this being set in Winesburg, Ohio. Does the setting mean anything particular to you, or is it just a clever gesture towards the Sherwood Anderson book?

PR: I was always an admirer of that book. I was reading some Anderson stories -- a new collection of his stories came out about two years ago in paperback -- when I was beginning Indignation. So when I asked myself, "Well, where is this college I am writing about?" I thought, "If Winesburg, Ohio, as depicted by Sherwood Anderson, had a college, this would be the college in Winesburg."

As you remember, Winesburg, Ohio is a book very much about repression, claustrophobia, secrecy. Anderson subtitles it, A Book of Grotesques, though in fact the subject is just small-town life. So, for the fun of it, I decided to put the college in Winesburg, Ohio.

JM: During our last conversation, when we discussed your novel Exit Ghost, I was surprised by a couple of things you said, and these were in my mind as I read Indignation. Exit Ghost had been announced as your final Nathan Zuckerman book, and I dutifully read it and remarked upon it in the context of the whole Zuckerman series. But I learned from your answers that I was assuming too much choreography and not enough dancing, if you will; that you are driven not by the larger contexts a reader may construct from your work, but rather by the moment of the writing and where that's taking you.

PR: You mean in the moment described.

JM: Yes.

PR: The moment depicted.

JM: Yes.

PR: I am driven by that. What I want is specificity, and to be true to the moment. So I have no generalized plan. Earlier, when I described the genesis of this book, it sounded generalized. I was just trying to get myself, to get my equipment oiled and going. Once I get it oiled and going, I've got a character. He's of a specific time and place, and of a specific background, and I expend my inventive energy on making that background alive. Liveliness and aliveness are what I'm after.

JM: Do you think your readers may be too quick to look past that liveliness for grander themes or connections?

PR: If they do, that's a mistake.

JM: Then let's get back to the book at hand. Marcus travels from Newark to Ohio to escape the surveillance of his father, and finds himself in a whole new realm of surveillance. But there is a twist: for we find out relatively early in the book that he is narrating the story from beyond the grave. From that position, he speaks quite eloquently about still being shackled to his story -- once he's gone, he discovers, he is stuck with his experience, endlessly obsessing over the same things that occupied him when he was alive. How did that kind of narrative perspective occur to you? Did you start out with a posthumous narrator or did that come to you after you had embarked upon the novel?

PR: No, I did not start out that way. It developed out of the telling. I can't remember now what it was in the nature of the telling that made me hazard those few sentences that then got me started down that path, but I liked the idea, once it had begun. I thought it gave me all kinds of latitude. I like to have people in a circumstance when they narrate; if you remember Portnoy's Complaint, the narrator is supposedly talking to a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst from a psychoanalyst's couch. I like to put people in a certain kind of bind, so that when they talk in the way that they do, I have permission to let them talk that way because of their predicament. Is that clear?

JM: Yes, perfectly. In your past few books, The Dying Animal and Everyman and Exit Ghost, you've been approaching the theme of mortality from the vantage point of age. But in Indignation, because of that narrative twist, you approach it from the vantage point of youth. Did that change in perspective open up the theme for you in a different way?

PR: In the last three books, death is an inevitable obsession of the characters because of their age, and indeed, a couple of them die -- at least, one of them dies in Everyman. In this book, it's a fluke. It's a fluke for a 19-year-old boy to die, though not in a war; then it's not a fluke. Then it's par for the course. If you look in the newspaper at the names and ages of the soldiers getting killed in Iraq now, you find these terrifying ages like 19 and 22; it's just awful. And it was that particular awfulness of young death that engaged me.

When I was young, I was in the Army myself. I had a friend who went in about the time I did, and he died in basic training from meningitis. He was from my neighborhood. I've never forgotten him. We weren't even close friends, really. We'd played ball together and things like that, but I never was in his house. But I've never forgotten the death of this 20-year-old -- I guess he was 20 or 21 -- boy whom I remember playing first base. He would be astonished that I still think of him.

So there is something grotesque about dying at that age, in those conditions. I have it happen in Sabbath's Theater. Sabbath's brother dies at the age of 20, I think, as a pilot in World War II in the Pacific.

JM: It certainly places the narrator in an interesting position. At one point, Marcus says, "Retelling my own story to myself round the clock in a clockless world, lurking disembodied in this memory grotto, I feel as though I've been at it for a million years." His isolation is profound; much later in the book, very poignantly, he exclaims, "'Ma! Dad! Olivia! I am thinking of you!'" He desperately wants to connect to them; but he can't: "To provoke no response no matter how painstaking the attempt to unravel and to be revealed. All minds gone except my own." He's reaching out to people who are no longer there.

PR: People in the story.

JM: Yes. I'm wondering if, as a writer who has often revisited themes and places and situations from his past, that feeling -- that reaching out to a world that is no longer there -- has a special meaning to you.

PR: I didn't think of that. I have had the opportunity to recall the distant past, and have tried to replicate it, or appear to replicate it while I'm actually inventing it. I think that is one of the satisfactions of writing, which is to elaborate what's absent. So yes, I guess it poses an analogy between being dead and being a writer.

JM: The Chinese National Anthem, from which the title of the book is taken, also made an appearance in Portnoy's Complaint, if I'm not mistaken.

PR: So people remind me. I'd forgotten that.

JM: That's interesting. It's clearly a piece of music that made quite an impression on you. When did you first hear it?

PR: As a kid. Everybody in the world heard it during this summer's Olympics, by the way. Every time the Chinese won a gold medal, they played that same song, without the words. My book has the words in it. We learned it as grade school kids. I was in grade school during World War II, and every week we had a program, called "Auditorium." We went to the auditorium, and all the kids in the upper grades spent an hour, among other things, singing patriotic songs, such as the Army song -- "The Caissons Go Rolling Along" -- and the Navy song -- "Anchors Aweigh" -- and so on. Astonishingly, in my school, and I think only in my school in the entire world outside of China, we sang what our left-leaning teachers called "The Chinese National Anthem." It was really the Chinese Communist song, "Arise, Ye Who Refuse to be Bond Slaves." There we would be, all these little Jewish kids, shouting this Chinese Communist marching song out in Newark, New Jersey.

JM: That's quite a scene.

PR: It's a good scene.

JM: We spoke earlier about the way the country's larger political narrative influences the life of Marcus. That kind of influence has been a recurring theme in your work, especially in novels such asAmerican Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Plot Against America. At the same time as these books animate individual lives in specific places, they seem to be tracking, quite consciously, the master political narratives of American history in the second half of the 20th century. I'm compelled to ask, given the presidential election that is on the national horizon, what you make of the master narratives at work in the daily news: a war hero meets the first major-party black candidate, with a capable frontierswoman riding in from Alaska . . .

PR: Incapable.

JM: Incapable -- I happily defer to you. I'm wondering if this confluence of narratives speaks to your imagination in a big way.

PR: No. I'm living through it like everybody else. I have no fictional designs on it. I wouldn't know how to. It usually takes fifty . . . This book, Indignation, took fifty years, not of writing, but of being away from the moment to see the moment, to re-imagine the moment. There is no relevance between my books and what's going on. I see what's going on like any other voter, or potential voter, or citizen, which is I get appalled, I get angry, I get frightened, and so on.

JM: I'm struck, each time a new book of yours appears, by the reference in the author biography to the Library of America series of your books. After saying that you are the only living American author to have a definitive edition of his work underway under the auspices of the Library of America, it concludes with a sentence along these lines: "The eighth and final volume will be published in 2013."

PR: Sounds ominous, doesn't it?

JM: It certainly does. I can't help but imagine you've concocted this whole Library of America thing as a kind of intricately eerie Henry James story.


JM: I imagine you working against the clock, or maybe it's with the clock, to fulfill some pact you've made with some higher power to fill out the shelf before you expire.

PR: Well, Max Rudin, who is the publisher at Library of America, said to me when we launched this endeavor, "And then, in 2013," -- which would be my eightieth birthday -- "we'll publish the last book and we'll have a big party for you." I said, "Couldn't we have the party sooner?" The reason they designated 2013 for the final book is that, at the time the series began, five years or so ago, they laid out a table of contents for each book, and the last book, as of that date, would have come out in 2013. So that terminal date doesn't take into account the new books I'm writing. I think they're probably going to have to add another volume, because I've written four or so books since the original plan was hatched.

JM: Ah, very good. I won't worry about it anymore! And it's somehow pleasingly appropriate to envision one slim, singular volume as an unexpected but necessary coda to that row of stately black tomes.

PR: I don't know how they'll work that out, really.

JM: Your productivity is astonishing. And the recent books have a youthful vigor in their composition, a headlong energy, which belie the age of their author. How do you maintain that kind of creative spark?

PR: I don't quite know how to answer. I just do the things I've always been doing. That is, I work more or less the same hours, the same schedule, and I go through the same difficulties that I've always gone through -- which are quite extensive in the beginning of the writing of a book. But I just stick with it. I guess it comes down to what my father used to call stick-to-it-iveness.

JM: There's a great deal of the wisdom of fathers in these books.

PR: Yes.

JM: In this one especially -- and there is the tremendous irony that the obsessive madness of the father that something is going to happen to little Marcus turns out to be prophetic.

PR: He has a premonition. That is the comical, tragical irony of the book, yes.

JM: Your books come out at a prodigious rate, but from what you say about the struggles of writing I'd imagine there's a lot of drafts and so on that prove unfruitful. How much writing do you do that doesn't see the light of publication?

PR: There are a lot of drafts. I don't seem any longer to make false starts and write 125 pages, and have to throw it all away -- although I did earlier in my career. Sometimes I do make a false start of 25 or 50 pages and put it away; a year or two later, I look at it and I see what was wrong, then scrap most of it and start again. But by and large, it's drafts. I write drafts and drafts. Let's say that, on average, I write between 5 and 7 drafts of a book, trying to bring it to life, really. When I get to the point where I can't do anything more, I consider myself done.

JM: Have you begun another book?

PR: I've finished another book.

JM: Remarkable.


JM: Can you tell us anything about it, or would you rather not?

PR: I'm going to get an A in the course, aren't I?

JM: Gold star.

PR: I don't want to talk about it. It will just confuse the conversation about Indignation. But I just recently finished a book, also a short book, which will come out next September.

JM: I'll look forward to reading it.

September 12, 2008

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