Roth: Indignation Narrator Not All the Way Dead! Maybe Just On Morphine

An interview with Philip Roth in this past weekend’s Guardian suggests that the narrator of Roth’s new novel, Indignation, might not be telling his story from the grave as so many reviewers have understood, but rather that he’s in some sort of pre-death morphine haze. In the book, the big reveal is plain enough: the character basically says "I am [dead] and have been for I don’t know how long." Robert McCrum of The Guardian though, writes, "it is ambiguous how much his memories are actually posthumous or feverishly imagined on the point of death."

Then the kicker:

In American literature, the ‘posthumous novel’ is a rare device, exploited most recently in Alice Sebold’s bestseller The Lovely Bones. Momentarily professorial, Roth is quick to acknowledge that it’s not original, pointing out that Epitaph for a Small Winner, by the 19th-century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, employs the same narrative point of view. The truth is that it’s not wholly successful, though the prose seems undiminished; but Roth is untroubled. ‘In the morphine sleep he doesn’t know where he is, so he imagines he’s dead… If it’s ambiguous, that’s OK, too.’

"In the morphine sleep he doesn’t know where he is, so he imagines he’s dead." Imagines. That means narrator = alive! Gotta be alive in order to imagine stuff.

Speaking of death, it seems like Mr. Roth’s expiration is mainly what McCrum wanted to talk about when he visited the 75-year-old at his home in northwest Connecticut.

Some highlights:

With Roth, art and life are strangely braided. ‘I made a list of people who’ve died in the past few years. It’s staggering. The funerals and the eulogies keep it all in mind.’ Does he speak at these funerals? ‘I speak at some. It’s not a genre I’ve mastered, the eulogy. I find it very difficult.’


‘I’m 75, a strange number,’ he volunteers. ‘It’s a strange discovery, for me at any rate. In your early years you don’t go to funerals every six months.’


When Roth published The Dying Animal in 2001, I asked him about his next book, and he replied, ‘I hope it takes the rest of my life. I can’t take starting from scratch.’ But the experience of real life contradicts the writer’s imaginative expectations. He’s just finished another book – ‘it’s probably a novelette’ – about another kind of death, a suicide. He insists this has ‘no therapeutic value. I just find it’s an interesting subject. I wanted to see if I could drive a character to that point where -‘ He stops. ‘I’m trying to drive somebody crazy,’ he summarises, with his usual deadpan delivery.

‘Starting a new book is hell. You just flail around until something happens. It’s miraculous. It comes to you out of nothing and nowhere. That’s the problem with writing short books. You finish them too quickly. And that’s what’s wonderful about a long book. So I’ve decided I’ve got to find a big project that will take me right through to the end. Finish the day before, and – exit ghost.’


Roth: Indignation Narrator Not All the Way Dead! Maybe Just On Morphine