Another year, another short novel from the unrelenting literary juggernaut that is Philip Roth. For yours truly, the annual ritual of greedily gobbling down the latest Roth novella on the day of its arrival in the post has established itself as a joyous seasonal highlight, ever since Everyman inaugurated the tradition in the autumn of 2006. It must be acknowledged, though, that not all of Roth’s admirers have been quite as delighted by the septuagenarian’s continuing prolificity. From establishing a world-class critical reputation that was crowned with 2004’s much-lauded The Plot Against America, and seemed unassailable when Everyman appeared, Roth has confounded and disappointed many critics with the short works he has churned out, with clockwork regularity, over the past few years. Christopher Hitchens’s, for one, has been a strident but by no means isolated voice in decrying the calibre of ‘late Roth’ (“a writer repeatedly fouling his own nest”), and a case could be made that Roth’s astonishing fecundity has been a factor in his still not having won the Nobel. With Bellow, Mailer and Updike departed, an almost unbearable level of critical scrutiny has been laid upon every sentence emanating from the pen of a man dubbed with increasing frequency ‘America’s Greatest Living Writer’, and every new Roth work begs the insulting, but inevitable, question: “Has Roth still got it?”
Personally speaking, my enjoyment of ‘late Roth’ has been fairly consistent (allowing for the disappointment of last year’s The Humbling, which left me rather nonplussed, its morbid finale falling distinctly flat). So, it was with some concern, if not alarm, that I trawled through the majority of Nemesis, his latest offering. The story is a simple one and it is simply told, relating a young man’s struggle to live up to the stringent standards of duty imbibed from the heroic grandfather who raised him (along with his less exacting, but equally devoted grandmother), in the face of a polio epidemic that devastates his neighbourhood of Weequahic, New Jersey, as World War Two rages in Europe and the Pacific. Exempted from service on the grounds of his poor eyesight, Bucky Cantor’s shame at not being able to serve his country alongside his friends feeds into the heavy responsibility he invests in his position as a playground director – and, when polio sweeps through his neighbourhood, leaving many of his playground’s children stricken, and some of them dead, his sense of being on the frontline of a battle in which there can be no shirking of his soldierly duties, exerts a fierce grip on his consciousness, plunging him into a psychodrama that forms the emotional and thematic core of the narrative. As the gravity of the epidemic intensifies, Bucky, persuaded by his fiancé Marcia, and tipped over the edge by what Edgar Allan Poe dubbed ‘The Imp of the Perverse’, abandons his position in Weequahic to join Marcia at an idyllic summer camp in the Poconos – a decision with devastating consequences, the particulars of which I will not acquaint my gentle readers with, not wishing to spoil their enjoyment of the best parts of the book.
The narrative suffers, most unusually for Roth, from a rather lumpen and plodding prose style, as if the author has placed too much faith in the ideal of eloquent clarity that served him so well in recent works such as Everyman and Indignation (2006); where those books sparked and flashed with a pure lyricism, this one, too often, is hampered with a glibness that, in fairness, is a befitting analogue for a protagonist who the narrator describes as “largely a humorless person, articulate enough but with barely a trace of wit, who never in his life had spoken satirically or with irony”. There are further un-Rothian elements to the book, some of which redound to its benefit, while others will disappoint long-standing admirers. While we’ve all grown accustomed (most of us unhappily) to Roth without jokes, Roth without sex is truly peculiar. The novel does include one sex scene, between Bucky and Marcia after their Poconos reunion – and flashing back to their losing their virginity together – but it is notably free from the salaciousness and mischievous zest that has so often characterised Roth’s approach to the subject; it is also, surprisingly, one of the most affecting passages of the book. Nemesis is also remarkably light on literary allusion; beyond the loose reference to Greek myth implicit in the title, there is nothing comparable here to the placements of Chekhov and Synge in The Humbling, and Conrad in 2007’s under-appreciated Exit Ghost, that contributed significantly to the textures of those works. This highlights the novel’s special affinity with Indignation; beyond the thematic similarities that bind together all of Roth’s recent works, there is in Nemesis and Indignation an urgent emphasis on narrating the fate of a single man plainly that endows them with a distinctive temper and enhances the emotional impact of their conclusions (interestingly, Roth has recategorised The Humbling, Indignation, and Everyman together with Nemesis, unde the heading ‘Nemeses: Short Novels’, reflecting their shared preoccupations with mortality and the road not taken).
Important mediation is provided in the novel by its narrator, who remains detached and anonymous for most of the book, only asserting himself forcefully in the short final chapter, where he is reunited with Bucky some three decades after the traumatic summer that comprises most of the novel’s action. It is in this section that Nemesis, belatedly, comes into its own. As Bucky reminisces with Arnold Mesnikoff, one of the children from his playground in Weequahic, the prose suddenly fizzes with the familiar Rothian verve and vitality, and the dialogue, oddly stilted in many earlier sections, crackles into life. Thematically, too, the novel draws together satisfyingly in the final forty pages; in particular, Bucky’s rage against God, which had seemed ominously to reflect a startlingly sophomoric approach to theology on the author’s part, is successfully reframed as a dramatic element of a personal tragedy. The lyrical closing paragraphs, in which Arnold recalls the wonder with which he and his friends beheld the athletic prowess of the young Bucky Cantor have a wonderfully elegiac quality, amounting to a touching tribute to enduring ideals of masculine dignity and nobility that, in the protagonist’s case, have been warped by his reading of his fate, in a catastrophically dysfunctional direction. For these paragraphs alone, Nemesis is worth persevering with to the end. And, elaborating further upon Roth’s intimate, lifelong preoccupation with the Jewish American experience as it does, it would be foolish for anyone with a passing interest in contemporary letters to overlook it.
Given its unpromising beginnings, a surprisingly worthy addition to the Roth canon.