If you are a Philip Roth fan, as I am, then you know that Roth stitches his characters, themes, symbols, and actions into a very intricate and delicate coverlet that subtly allows the reader a glimpse into its fabric. His 2008 novel Indignation is no exception. The challenge for James Schamus, the director and screenplay writer of the new movie adaptation of Indignation, was to keep the film true to the book.
Marcus Messner (played by Logan Lerman) is the teenaged son of a kosher butcher in Newark, N.J. He has worked alongside the father he adores most of his adolescent life. But suddenly, his father is overtaken by an unreasonable, senseless fear of letting his only son go out into an unprotected world.
There are a number of parallels that arise out of the timeset of the novel: the era is the early 1950s — the Korean War has just begun, just a number of short years after the Second World War, and America has once again involved itself. America is not successful in its defence of South Korea and just as its fortunes start to fall off, Mr. Messner’s business and health start to wane. Marcus becomes the unintended victim of this decline.
Marcus runs headlong into conflict with authority (school, parents, fraternity, religion, the draft), fear (his own and his father’s), and the social and sexual mores of the time. Marcus is indignant about many things, but it is his own missteps and misconceptions that lead him away from his childhood safety net.
Death becomes the ultimate indignation, and Marcus dies young.
The film runs at a very low key pace, using close up camera work with classical music thrumming in the background. We are never far from Marcus’s face, played with a correct degree of bewildered innocence by Lerman. Marcus comes from the protected environment of a close-knit Jewish home and doesn’t know what to make of the Christian atmosphere in which he finds himself. He certainly doesn’t know what to do with Olivia Hutton (played by Sarah Gadon), the beautiful but damaged young girl who introduces him to oral sex.
In trying to find himself, Marcus leads himself farther and farther astray. As the narrator of the novel, Marcus takes the reader along on his journey. However, the film makes a serious error by focusing the start and finish of the film on Olivia and her journey.
Sarah Gadon as Olivia and Tracy Letts as Dean Caudwell are excellent. So are all the other character actors. If you are not familiar with the novel, then the film is a believable portrayal of life in a small college New England town in the 1950s. It works as a period piece. However, it does not work as a coming-of-age passage from one world to another — be it the world of culture or of war.
As a novel, Indignation is a wonderful piece of literature that makes a fascinating discussion for a book club or a class studying war or mid-’50s social life, and certainly it sparks a terrific conversation about a time that is so different from today. In the case of James Schamus’s film, see it before you read the novel, but read the novel for sure! It will amaze you.
Today is the official launch of the new Bookclub-in-a-Box guide to John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner, which has seen a sudden resurgence in popularity in recent years. Buy the PDF discussion guide on our website for just $6.95 (CDN), and the digital file will be emailed to you immediately upon purchase.
The Bookclub-in-a-Box guide (50 pages) includes complete coverage of the characters, themes, symbols, writing style, quotes from the novel, and book club discussion questions. Click here to buy it now!
Read a review by Marilyn Herbert, founder of Bookclub-in-a-Box, about the novel Stoner:
The question of why a “perfect” novel (described as such by reviewers) sat under everyone’s radar for 50 years is a good one. Originally published in 1965, John Williams’ novel Stoner was overshadowed by the likes of Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, and Henry Miller. It was also pushed to the back of people’s minds by the political backdrop of the civil rights movement. Then in 2011, it was translated into French and soared to the top of the literary stage. The phenomenon of Stoner is not media promotion, but word of mouth.
The book opens with the information that William Stoner, a farm boy, had become a teacher, married, had a child, and then died. This is the story of the life of an ordinary man. But as we come to see it, his was not an ordinary life — it was an individual life full of success and failure in all aspects, much like our own lives are. The novel is a deeply introspective look at being human.
Two ideas dominate the novel: life and literature, with the emphasis on the love of both. The structure is unusual, in that it opens with an obituary tribute to an unremarkable and little-remembered William Stoner, and then continues to unfold Stoner’s persona and relationships. The language is quiet and yet very powerful. The descriptions of Stoner’s development as a teacher, husband, and father is filled with disappointments, which Stoner takes in stride. Then, in middle age, he falls in love. This love affair cannot be acted upon because of the times (the 1950s) and the fact that he was married, but he endures and years later comes to understand that he is still capable of love and passion:
He was not beyond it, and never would be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there … It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance … it said simply: Look! I am alive.
This slim novel has many layers, discussing literature and language, isolation and loneliness, expectations and disappointments, love, war, death, education, and above all, change. John Williams plays out these themes using sensual descriptions based on juxtaposition of colour, silence, light, and dark. The writing is deeply intrusive on the reader’s consciousness.
In the end we, like Stoner, are faced with the question of what our own life’s purpose is and has been. Is any life ordinary, or can we look beneath the surface to see the beating heart of living and loving? Can we put that knowledge and observation into words, when words may not be sufficiently strong?
Stoner is a small but powerful novel and the character of William Stoner will stay with you for a long time.
Reviewed by Marilyn Herbert
Mountain climbing and hiking are not for the faint of heart, yet Lori Lansens (author of The Girls) has given us an amazing story to experience vicariously in her novel The Mountain Story. The book’s cover says: “Five days. Four lost hikers. Three survivors.” From the beginning, there are pressing questions.
Wolf Truly is 18 years old when he takes what he believes is his last tram ride up to the mountain located at the edge of the California desert. Once there, he intends to hike to a spot at Secret Lake to take his life. His objective is diverted by first two, then three women who hope to head to the same location, but need his help to get there.
Nola and Bridget decide that Wolf is a mountain guide and offer him money, which he refuses and he resolutely heads off into the bush. Hearing his name in the wind, he turns just in time to see the two women heading off in the wrong direction.
Poor Wolf. Soon afterwards, the third woman, Vonn, catches up to them — there is a swarm of bees, a beetle-infested log, confusion, and nervousness at having to spend a night on the mountain. In trying to clear a sleeping spot, they fell, “lost in the kaleidoscope of rocks and ochre dust and manzanita and sage, conveyed by round, rushing boulders, and silt, and brush, hitting the ground with a thud.”
In an instant, they have fallen down a steep wall at the edge of a cliff overlooking Palm Springs — so near, yet so far. Despite the California location, the weather at the top is extremely cold. Nola has a broken wrist, Bridget is dressed as a yoga instructor and Vonn is wearing green flip-flops. Wolf feels responsible for their well-being and their hopeful rescue.