September 22nd, 2008 5:33 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TOME RAIDER: Indignation, Part II of II


Every Sunday—and sometimes in between—WW writer John Minervini brings you the latest in book reviews, author Q&A's and Portland literary gossip. Click here to join the Tome Raider mailing list.

    Six-word Summary: Butcher's Son Makes Good, Gets Gored

In yesterday's installment—the first half of this two-part review—you learned about Philip Roth's new novel, Indignation (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $26.00). In it, a noble, doomed butcher's son, Marcus Messner, careens through a volatile sophomore year of college in far-off Winesburg, Ohio. But it doesn't last long. Before he can say “Bertrand Russell,” Marcus is expelled on a technicality, conscripted into the US Army, shipped off to Korea and lanced by Chinese bayonets. It's a sad story, simply told, and it's those qualities—sad and simple—that are the subject of today's post. But before we go into greater depth about Indignation, let's talk about Spätstil.

Spätstil is a German word that means “late style;” it refers to the end-of-life work of certain classical composers. A composition that exemplifies Spätstil consists of pared-down melodies of plaintive simplicity, the result of a reduction of harmonic schemes and a diminishing of traditional forms. Beethoven's later string quartets are a good example—especially A minor, B flat and C sharp minor.

Theodor Adorno famously asserted that this musical shift—common to so many older composers—had a basis in philosophy. According to Adorno, the paring-down of musical forms was an inevitable and irreversible result of the realization that subjective freedom is illusory. As you get older, he thought, you can't help but notice that individual will matters little or not-at-all in the wash of the larger historical forces that comprise objective reality

That disillusionment, continued Adorno, is implicit in music that exemplifies Spätstil. Such music mourns the loss of the human will, while nevertheless anticipating a future age in which the notion of subjective freedom—and the values that gave rise to it—will be considered outmoded and absurd.

In the face of such a bleak epiphany, traditional musical forms don't make much sense. Symphonies, waltzes and marches are out of place; they belong to a heroic age, a romantic age, an age of bourgeois humanism. Instead, when confronted by uncaring, objective reality, it seems more appropriate to write an elegy for illusions lost (Beethoven) or simply to make unstructured noise (Schoenberg). So that's Spätshell in a nutstil. I mean Spütstil in a natshell.

I mean Spätstil in a nutshell. Whew.

What does all this have to do with Philip Roth's new novel? Simple. Spätstil doesn't just apply to classical music. In fact, visionary critics have also used the term to describe literature. Take, for instance, Herman Melville's twilight novella, Billy Budd. It's a simple story about a well-meaning lad who is unjustly hanged by a military court. It's a tale of how a single human life can be swallowed up by larger historical forces, without regard to justice or virtue. It's Spätstil, plain and simple.

Indignation, too, is an example of the author's Spätstil. Thematically speaking, it's a melancholy book narrated from an afterlife of pure memory, in which the protagonist's 19 short years, replayed endlessly, cannot help but assume the aspect of a farce. Formally—at 231 pages, quite short for a Roth novel—it's told in the simplest way imaginable. Marcus, the narrator, frankly discusses his father's kosher butcher business, fraternity culture at Winesburg College and his own lack of sexual experience. It's prose without artifice, but not without art.

Consider, for instance, the reason for which Marcus is expelled from Winesburg. One of the college's graduation requirements is that students attend a weekly assembly with not-so-subtle Christian themes, offensive to atheistic Marcus. But instead of lodging a formal complaint, Marcus hires a surrogate to attend the assemblies in his stead. Predictably, the surrogate is discovered, and before long Marcus is dead in Korea.

Despite his being a straight-A student, there are any number of reasons Marcus might have been expelled from Winesburg—reasons that would have made limited sense in light of the ideological turmoil he was experiencing. He might have been expelled, for instance, for getting hand jobs from Olivia in the hospital. He might have been expelled for saying “fuck you” to the pompous and wrongheaded dean. But instead he is expelled because of a triviality, failure to complete a graduation requirement as pointless as P.E. It's downright Kafkaesque.

As an example of Indignation's simple style, consider the following excerpt. In it, Marcus explains that his decision to leave Newark and transfer to a college in unfamiliar Ohio was based on a picture in the Winesburg admissions catalogue.

“I was wearing pleated gray flannel trousers and a check sport shirt and a maroon V-neck pullover and white buckskin shoes. It was the same outfit I'd seen on the boy pictured on the cover of the Winesburg catalogue that I'd set away for and received in the mail, along with the college application forms. In the photo, he was walking beside a girl wearing a two-piece sweater set and a long, full dark skirt and turned-down white cotton socks and shiny loafers. She was smiling at him while they walked together as though he'd said to her something amusingly clever. Why had I chosen Winesburg? Because of that picture! There were big leafy trees on either side of the two happy students, and they were walking down a grassy hill with ivy-clad brick buildings in the distance behind them, and the girl was smiling so appreciatively at the boy, and the boy looked so confident and carefree beside her, that I filled out the application ad sent it off and within only weeks was excepted.”

Note the simple sentence structure; the child-like repetition of the conjuction "and"; the unbelievable naivete of choosing a college based on a picture in a catalogue. That's the flavor of the whole novel, in which childlike wonder and uncaring fate coexist with heartbreaking proximity on every page. Beethoven would be proud.

Of course, Indignation isn't entirely successful. Winesburg—both the college and the town, which Sherwood Anderson so poignantly evoked in 1919—remains generic and vague in Roth's account. The characters, too, risk devolving into caricatures: the neurotic straight-A student, the strong Jewish mother, the pompous-ass WASP alum. And at the beginning of the novel, the style is so simple it's frankly a bore: it isn't until Olivia shows up (at approximately page 50) that things really get interesting.

But it's hardly fair to expect Roth to nail his Spätstil on the first attempt. After all, the author is only 72 years old, practically a debutante in the world of grandfatherly belles-lettrists. In any case, Indignation is a worthy experiment; why not check it out?
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