In different ways, Philip Roth’s Indignation and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach force us to confront difficulty. Both are short, and both contain surprises at the end. Both raise initial fears in the reader that he will be subjected to a politically correct tract; both subvert political correctness in the end.
The protagonist of Indignation, set in the beginning of the 1950s, is Marcus Messner, the only child of a kosher butcher in Newark. Marcus is a model son, a brilliant and industrious student who delights in helping his father in the shop. His father, who started working when he was ten years old, hopes that his son will do far better than he did. Unfortunately, Messner Senior undergoes a change. Two developments render him anxious and neurotically overprotective of Marcus: the establishment of a supermarket nearby that threatens to undermine his business and the onset of the Korean War. Having lost two nephews in World War II, he fears he will lose his son in the new conflict. To escape his father, Marcus transfers from a New Jersey college to one in Winesburg, Ohio (an artful reference to Sherwood Anderson that conjures a world of quiet desperation). Winesburg is more provincial than the East Coast, of course, but for Marcus, Middle America is a new world: at the price of some social discomfort, he finds that the move broadens his horizons.
Marcus spends what for him is a small fortune on preppy clothes, but finds when he arrives at Winesburg College (which is a Baptist establishment) that he fits in socially among neither the Jews nor the Gentiles. Impoverished, he works in a bar on weekends, where he hears mildly anti-Semitic jibes. He befriends a beautiful young student, Olivia, the daughter of well-to-do parents, with whom he has his first sexual experiences, but he discovers two things about her that undermine his confidence: first, despite her relatively privileged background, Olivia is mentally unstable and has made a suicide attempt by cutting her wrists (itself a warning that life is not automatically made easier by easy circumstances); second, she has a reputation for loose morals. His sexual experience, then, does not make much of a conquest.