Talking to Philip Roth: Indignation and the Ethics of Spoilers

Tom on September 19, 2008

054705484x01_mzzzzzzz__2 I meant to post this yesterday, in honor of New Jersey Day, but, well, it got very late. But I recently had the opportunity to talk to Newark's (well, now Connecticut's) own Philip Roth about his new book, Indignation. The responses to this one are all over the map, like they seem to be for every new book he writes these days, but, having read a whole lot of Roth over the past year or so (in preparation for talking to him last year), I'm one of the ones who thinks the new one is superb (it's my Best of the Month pick for September). It may not be as ambitious as American Pastoral or The Counterlife, say, or quite as exquisite as The Ghost Writer or Goodbye, Columbus, but to say it's, oh, the seventh- or eighth-best Roth book is still saying a lot. It's a tight little comedy, but I've found it very haunting, both in the reading and in the remembering.

There's a revelation about 50 pages into the book that, when I talked to him, I planned to keep under wraps, just because I had enjoyed its sly unveiling so much and didn't want to deprive anyone else of the pleasure. But it's so central to the book that Roth spilled the beans anyway, after I had boxed him in with a clumsy question that made it all but unavoidable. How do you handle talking about a plot point like that? A number of the reviewers have met that question head on. Kakutani, rather spitefully to my mind, blew the twist in the very first line of her fairly negative review on Tuesday, while David Gates (is he not the best front-line critic writing these days?) in what will be the cover review in the Times on Sunday (you can get an early peek in the International Herald Tribune today), is far more graceful about it, revealing it himself but with the same sort of storyteller's skill and enjoyment that Roth himself uses. (Plus, I agree with him about the book.)

You can listen to our conversation below, in which we talk about how to time such a revelation, as well as related matters like the Chinese national anthem, the late editor (and his old friend) Ted Solotaroff, and whether Indignation is a "'50s, Bob Newhart Portnoy."


P.S. I just noticed that my predecessor here (by many years now!), the wise James Marcus, had his own time with Roth recently and has a nice piece about it in the LA Times.

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