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Philip Roth: Nemesis

October 26, 2010

If you laid all these Philip Roths end to end you'd have a joke from Portnoy's Complaint.

And so to Nemesis, Philip Roth’s twenty-ninth novel, and his fifth in five years. Nemesis‘s existence, and impending release, was announced even before the publication of last year’s The Humbling, which with hindsight seems like a publisher hedging its bets somewhat, since The Humbling itself was by some distance the worst of Roth’s novels of the last twenty years. One has to be the least good, of course, of a run of novels that takes in Sabbath’s Theater, The Human Stain, The Dying Animal and American Pastoral, four unassailable greats of American literature, but it was just a shame that The Humbling had to be so dire a runner-up (see my review here): laborious for a book so short, uninvolving, and depressingly badly written. As I said at the time — I don’t think I was alone — one could only hope it was a blip; Nemesis, thankfully, seems to suggest that to be the case, though it raises some interesting questions about what kind of blip we can expect from late-period Roth.

Firstly, there’s Nemesis‘s position as the latest and maybe of what are now being described, in the frontpapers’ impressive list of previous publications, as ‘Nemeses: Short Novels’, the others being Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling. In a way the pluralised umbrella title might more aptly have been ‘Humblings’, though that could cover a whole swathe of Roth’s back catalogue, in which arrogance and unfaithful men, even sometimes good men, are crushed by tragic circumstances. Instead the group title encourages thoughts of more precisely personified tragedies: death hangs over this quartet of novels, from the posthumous narrator of Indignation (I thought at one point the same trick was looming in Nemesis, but Roth’s smarter than to rehash that twist, and in fact subverts it here) to the grim, in all senses, denouement of The Humbling.

Spoilers follow.

Nemesis is set in Newark in 1944, and is the story of Eugene ‘Bucky’ Cantor, a 23-year old playground supervisor. He has taken up this post because he has been unable to join the army, due to his diminutive height (“slightly under five feet five inches tall”) and “poor vision that necessitated him wearing thick eyeglasses”). Instead, then, he goodnaturedly, steadfastly supervises the Jewish children of the neighbourhood in their play. He is popular, it seems, with the children and their parents, a boy who’s both trustworthy and reliable, although later in the book a strange shift in perspective casts his youthful earnestness as a lack of imagination and, which is probably the worst offence in Roth’s universe, we are told that he had “never in his life … spoken satirically or with irony”.

Polio is epidemic in Newark in 1944. The disease’s origins and its vectors of contagion are unknown, and therefore open to being interpreted according to the townspeople’s prejudices. Early in the novel, a dozen Italian mobsters turn up at the gates of the playground where Bucky — “Mr. Cantor” throughout the first half of the book — works and, spitting copiously on the ground, announce their intention: to spread polio. Every immigrant population in turn is accused of carrying the disease; that it starts to strike an above-average number of Jewish children, incapacitating and killing an increasing number, is seen by some commentators as a kind of cosmic justice, by others as an excuse to ghettoise the Jewish community and by doing so contain the polio.

Bucky’s charges start to fall ill to the polio, the speed of the disease’s spread and swiftness of its effects shocking him. Not just the effects on those taken ill: while some parents cry out in rage at unjust fate (or God), others, horrifically, turn on Bucky himself, holding him responsible for their child’s illness. Faced with a choice between staying in Newark continuing to run the boys’ playground, or evacuating to join his girlfriend Marcia at the Jewish summer camp in rural Pennsylvania where she is working, Bucky takes the wrong decision: he flees his responsibilities, abandons his job and leaves town. But of course, this is Roth, and as soon as Bucky feels “that phantom, future happiness”, the Fates are waiting to punish his errors in the most thorough and scarifying way…

This is a small novel, a miniature, really, yet more substantial (plotwise) than Everyman, and certainly less crass and more humane than the ghoulish, mean-spirited Nemesis. Nemesis (unitalicised) awaits Bucky in the Pennsylvania mountains, and the moment of ‘the twist’, carefully held off for maximum emotional impact, is truly horrific. Bucky himself, escaping the ravages of polio in Newark, unwittingly carries the infection with him, compromising the previously healthy community, the vector for an infection that cripples his best friend and spreads to the children, causing the summer camp to be disbanded and — in his shame and horror — Bucky’s whole life to collapse in on itself.

A coda sees the book’s narrator — who has been absent for much of the foregoing, only casually inserting his own name, Arnie Mesnikoff, into a list of the polio-infected children — run into a much older Bucky Cantor some decades later. This Mr Cantor is the one who has surrendered all happiness — willingly rejected the possibility happiness in fact — in a flawed, heartbreaking attempt to somehow make worthwhile his guilt over his youthful decisions: to use what he believes to be his moral failings, not even to make amends but, recognising the impossibility of such a thing, instead to define himself wholly by them.

There is of, this being Roth, discussion of God as well: what kind of a creator would allow such a calamity to be visited upon his people, upon children, wonders Bucky, and there is clearly a larger context being alluded to (this being 1944) which Roth is sensitive enough, and Bucky myopic enough, not to reference overtly. Oddly — thus the reason for the jacket illustration (on the spine of which, incidentally, Roth’s name, white text on butter-yellow, is virtually invisible) — Bucky turns to the sun as a viable alternative to God: a life-giving presence with no morals and therefore no philosophical lapses. But if your god doesn’t have what can be termed failings — if universal randomness and coincidence are the only rulers — what does that mean for individuals whose failings are all too discernible, and have such clearly terrible consequences?

It is — unlike the would-be excoriating ‘playfulness’ (to be very, very generous) of The Humbling — a sad story, as basic or fundamental as that sounds. One has a ‘meta’ moment while reading it: late Roth has the potential for sadness in its own way, since while one would not suggest his powers are failing exactly — in that strange comic-book formulation — there is undeniably a qualitative difference between Nemesis and (say)  American Pastoral, most noticeably on the level of the sentence.

Nemesis‘s are more lucid and limpid, perhaps, and suited to what amounts to a moral fable; but I feel somewhat sorry that the gain in clarity and straightforwardness is balanced by the loss of those long, multi-claused rants of sentences, dense but syntactically elegant, I associate with ‘1990s Roth’. (That said, cursory examination of American Pastoral suggests that this not as clear a distinction as I’d imagined, AP‘s sentences being generally longer but just as precise and spare in their own way as those of Nemesis: no wasted words, no superfluous adjectives.)

But these are of course two different types of novels, and chastising one for not being like the other is fairly pointless. What Nemesis does is to complete a quartet of brief novels that is its own kind of achievement; to clear the way for what the unpredictable late-period Roth will do next; and (which is most personally reassuring) show that The Humbling can thankfully be considered a blip after all, and the great American novelist still knows exactly what he’s doing.

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