Book review: Entitled to a sense of indignation

INDIGNATION Philip Roth Jonathan Cape, £16.99

I'M SURE I'm not the only literary reviewer who, when confronted with a New Book by a Major Author, has to play a few psychological tricks on myself. If it didn't say "Philip Roth" on the front of this book, would I realise it was by Philip Roth? Since I know it's a New Book by a Major Author – and they don't come much bigger than Roth, the only living author included in the Library of America series, as the jacket-flap helpfully nudges – to what extent is my reading subtly compromised, my critical edge swaddled and my judgments pre-empted? How much am I reviewing the Author and not the Book?

In the case of Indignation, I'm pretty sure I'd recognise it as Roth. And in terms of my analytical faculties, I'd have to say it strikes me as a pretty minor work by Roth.

Set in 1951, the narrator, Marcus Messner, is a diffident, diligent student from New Jersey (the lilt of the sentences almost make you read it as Nyoo Joyzay), for whom the Korean War is an added impetus to get good grades. His father, a kosher butcher, has suddenly become over-protective and paranoid since Marcus went to college, and is prone to terrors over pool halls and brothels. The stifling, anxious atmosphere becomes so bad that Marcus goes to the conservative Winesburg College in Ohio, where he encounters anti-Semitism, oral sex and a new, more intransigent authority to chafe against.

If you were reading this on an eBook Reader, and didn't feel in your hands that it was only 231 pages long (with very large margins as well), it would seem like the beginning of a saga. If you'd read enough Roth, you'd probably expect Marcus's marriage, first novel, affair, Vietnam, divorce, writer's block, his father's death, Kennedy's death and so on, to draw to a clever closure where all the elements were seeded in that sophomore term in Ohio. But there's a brisk slap in the face on page 54 – just after the epiphanic oral sex. Marcus is dead. He died at 19. Now he is "retelling my own story to myself round the clock in a clockless world".

It is a startling moment, but the rest of the narrative fails to capitalise either on the eerie revelation or on the ghastly irony that we now know how this ends. As far as a Roth checklist goes, it's tick after tick: mild postmodernism, Jewish identity, the failure of the American dream, sex as liberation and fetter – there's even the secular death fear that has been so predominant in his late morbid bagatelles, The Dying Animal, Everyman and Exit Ghost.

But this is, after all, the writer of American Pastoral and The Plot Against America. He's the author of the underrated The Professor Of Desire, a novel which shares many themes with Indignation, but does it with wit. He is a great writer, even if Indignation is not a great work.

The prose flows elegantly but rarely stops the reader cold with its beauty – with the exception of a glorious moment: "Olivia, laughing – no, not laughing, nibbling rather at the bait of a laugh". Roth uses the technique he's honed in countless scenes, where a seemingly rationally delivered piece of dialogue is shown as intemperate the minute the other person speaks: beautifully done, and neatly revealing of Marcus's brittle character, but done with more serious intent and moral significance in earlier works.

The narrative splinters towards the end, with too much crammed into this slight novel: there are pregnancies, breakdowns, gay stalkers, touching reconciliations, chilling satires and a few more delightful but heart-breaking, non-penetrative sex scenes, all hastily forced on the reader. It ends, bathetically, with a 'panty raid': frat-boy high jinks with costly consequences for Marcus. It's a neat period detail; it's also ever so slightly louche. Always the literary seducer, Roth has beguiled readers over a long, entangling career. By contrast, Indignation is an ill-judged late-in-the-day one-night-stand, with the old maestro trying all his old tricks, but quickly.

I wonder what would happen if the manuscript of the book were to appear, without the Big Name, in a slush pile. I can imagine an eager publishing assistant being captivated by an anonymous Indignation, thinking parts of it were wonderful, parts of it derivative of Philip Roth, and slipping it back in its jiffy-bag with a regretful rejection note.