2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
In the world of the righteous, beware of what the plumber says,
Amazon Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Indignation (Hardcover)An American teenager storms off to his room. Unlikely as it sounds, this is uncharacteristic behaviour on the part of Marcus Messner, the first-person narrator of Philip Roth's latest novel. Already, within a dozen pages, we think Marcus has a point. Enrolled at the local college, he looks back to the "wonderful time" he had ("wonderful except when it came to eviscerating chickens") helping his father out at the butcher's store on Lyons Avenue in Newark, New Jersey. He remembers the way they would deal with the demanding customers, and, of course, he remembers the blood, the buckets of blood. On the other side of the world the Korean war is underway, and blood is being spilled by bullet and bayonet.
Then, one day, his father flips and begins wondering when his only son is going to go off and get himself killed. Why this sudden change? Being at college means avoiding the draft, avoiding danger. "The questions were ludicrous... I had been a prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student" whose main ambition was to be the first Messner to attend university. He storms off to his room when he finds out that his father has been "driven crazy by the chance remark of a plumber". He's incensed that his father has chosen to believe, not what he has seen with his own eyes for an entire lifetime, but what he's been told by a plumber "on his knees fixing the toilet in the back of the store!"
For me, this brings to mind the image of a priest on his knees before the altar, making people believe things that are not true, that defy a lifetime of experience of how the world goes, that contradict reason and logic and evidence. We don't know it yet, but Marcus Messner's intellectual hero is Bertrand Russell. Later, when he gets into trouble at college with Dean Caudwell ("the biggest Christer around"), we learn just how hard life can be for an American atheist in "the world of the righteous". There are parallels between Marcus and the British mathematician G. H. Hardy (who was at Trinity with Russell): both were unbelievers who bridled at the thought of attending college chapel, indignant at "putrefied primitive superstition" and the "disgrace of religion", and both resisted taking the advice of more sophisticated friends. Hardy too had to face the dean of his college, but there the parallel ends: while Hardy went on to enjoy a long and renowned academic career, Marcus sadly does not. (In the spirit of the novel, it was pure luck I happened to be reading Hardy at the same time as Roth.)
Marcus admires those who seem to be in control. At Winesburg College in Ohio he meets Olivia and this time chance works in his favour - he gets lucky in a very pleasant if perplexing way. To him, she is poised, an expert, in control. To herself, nothing could be further from the truth. Her rebuke is stinging: "I, who have eight thousand moods a minute... am 'under control'?" When his mother visits, she remembers the time her husband locked him out, and admits, "I couldn't control him, and this is the result."
This brilliant novel is set midway through the twentieth century, at a time of war and when world war was just-lived history. It was also a significant moment in intellectual history, one that might itself come to be seen as a tipping point in human knowledge. Our understanding of complex systems like national economies and the weather had rested upon the fundamental assumption that small changes in the initial values would get washed out over time. The discovery of the butterfly effect in the early sixties - in which tiny changes in those values result in huge divergence - began a rethink that is continuing to this day. Take any catastrophe and it may be that the seeds of its destructive power were there all along, slowly growing from small beginnings.
While we are now used to the idea that world events are not always or even often under the control of governments, on the scale of the individual we haven't yet shaken off the educated view of the world as a deterministic place. We are too attached to the idea that a person's success or failure is down to their intrinsic qualities rather than to luck. (Even lottery winners sometimes attribute their success to their "positive" attitude!) Roth's achievement is to tell a story that keeps you riveted to every word while also sparking off some of these ideas. In the end, it is the uneducated father who puts it best and teaches Marcus his most important lesson: "the terrible, the incomprehensible way one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieves the most disproportionate result."