Monday, December 13, 2010

Philip Roth's Nemesis: What Hath God Wrought?

Bucky Cantor is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore. The protagonist of Philip Roth's thought-provoking new novel Nemesis believes that life isn't fair, that life's dealt him a horrible hand, and he is fed up living under the reign of an angry god who kills people willy-nilly. It all just seems so arbitrary, or, as Roth eloquently puts it, "He was struck powerless each of us is against the force of circumstance."

As the cover blurb states, this theme is one Roth has played with frequently in his recent quartet of slim novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis). Nemesis, though, may be the best of the lot. The novel is set in Newark in the summer of 1944, amidst a burgeoning polio epidemic. Bucky supervises a playground of grade-school-age kids and laments the fact that his poor eyesight has prevented him from joining the war effort, as his two best friends have.

Some fellas just aren't happy unless they're miserable, and Bucky seems to be one of these. When kids on his playground start contracting — and dying from — polio, Bucky gets angrier and angrier, and he feels more and more helpless against chance. So he takes a chance of his own, accepting a job as an instructor at a summer camp in the Poconos where his new fiance is a counselor. But he immediately feels badly about it — like self-preservation is a sin, like not taking a challenge (even an invented one) head-on is a discredit to himself. For Bucky, the fact that his two friends are fighting the Germans seems to mean he should have to create and fight his own battles, whatever they may be — even if they're against himself and his own desire to be happy.

Bucky is such a tragic character — but one with whom it's easy to sympathize. He's your standard nice guy, he has the respect of everyone who knows him, and the reader can't help but like him. His harangues against God's unfairness are few and far between at first, and seem more like a minor glitch in an otherwise normal guy, rather than a overarching philosophy that guides Bucky's life. But guide his life his God-anger does. And the angrier he becomes with God, the angrier he is with himself for what he perceives is his helplessness to stop these fresh-faced youths from getting polio. So the question — which Roth spends the rest of the novel answering — is who is Bucky's real nemesis, himself or God?

Beyond Bucky's misguided self-castigations — and how brilliantly, though simply, Roth renders them — the other thing I loved about this novel is how the idea of people's fear of the unknown about polio, and their need to assign blame, definitely draws to mind contemporary issues. Folks in 1944 had no idea what caused polio and how it spread. And, despite reactionary and ineffective strategies to try to contain it, fear spread at the same rate.. Sound familiar? 

I loved this book, sure. But in the interest of full disclosure, Roth can do little wrong in my eyes. He's one of my favorites, and I've read him more than any other novelist. Nemesis isn't quite in the top-tier, American Pastoral or Portnoy's Complaint level of Roth novels, but it's very, very good. Highly recommend!


  1. The only Philip Roth I've read is "The Plot Against America" and it just lacked something for me. I do want to read "The Human Stain" though.

  2. Great review. I have read "The Human Stain" and rather liked it, but something about Roth's personality puts me off. He's a smart guy, but he seem to take a lot of pride in being a literary figure. More pride than in his own writing. My judgmental self again.

    What I meant to say is that your review made me want to read Roth again.

  3. Nothing could ever make me want to read Roth again. Ugh. I think I'm one of the few readers who can't stand him.

  4. Well written and thoughtful review Greg. I'm ashamed to say I've enver read any of Roth's stuff - but I will.

  5. I've never read Roth before, but his books sound like something I might read. I'll be sure to scare up a copy at the library soon enough.

  6. I should probably be ashamed to admit that I haven't read anything from Roth. I guess I intend to, someday, but that day hasn't arrived yet. Since I am turning my back on challenges next year, perhaps now is the time.

    And it seems like Bucky's nemesis is Bucky.

  7. Since we're all confessing, I'll admit that I've never read Roth either. Where would you recommend we all start?

  8. Well, lucky me. I did read some of Roth's novels. I think he's one of the best around.

  9. @Sam - The Plot Against America wasn't my favorite Roth either - but it's also not a real good representation of his work. The Human Stain, on the other hand, is vintage Roth. Try it!

    @Ben - I'm not sure I'd agree with that - Roth seems to carefully guide his privacy, rarely giving interviews and never doing signings or readings or lectures or anything much in the public eye. Anyway, I'm glad this encouraged you to read him - he's awesome. Try Sabbath's Theater. You'll know why...

    @Anonymous - Uh huh. Thanks for your thoughtful, well-supported comment.

    @Man - Dive in, pal! There's no shortage of options with Roth. ;)

    @Pen - Go for it! You'll be happy you did.

    @Sandy - You could spend a whole year reading Roth - he has nearly 40 titles, I think. That would be a good 2011 challenge! ;)

    @Patrick - I'm disappointed in you Patrick. Just kidding. But he definitely has a "Literate Man" bent to his writing. I'd start with Indignation or Nemesis - short introductions to Roth's style. From there, try The Human Stain or Operation: Shylock - sort of intermediate Roth. Then, move on to the best: American Pastoral and Portnoy's Complaint.

    @superheidi - Couldn't agree more - thanks for the one vote FOR Roth! ;)

  10. Ok this was a great review. I've been wanting to get into Roth for awhile but I have no idea where to start. Any suggestions to get me eased into his stuff? How about the 2 titles you mentioned at the end. I feel horrible that it's taken me so long to get around to him but I feel the time is near.

  11. great review! Nemesis was my 5th Roth, and while I agree it was very good, nothing yet has surpassed American Pastoral, one of my all time favs. :o)

  12. I enjoyed Nemesis and it was a relief after his two previous books--Indignation and The Humbling, which I thought were every bit as annoying as the Zuckerman books. I did, however, think American Pastoral was a great book and I liked The Plot Against America a lot as well.

  13. Really interesting review. Nemesis is the first Roth I've got to the end of, and I thought the themes of guilt and fear were really well explored, and the denouement was particularly poignant. There are few books around which give such a powerful insight into an individual's thought processes, and to do that so effectively in such a short novel is a real achievement. Definately a convert here!

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