Just what the nemesis is in Philip Roth’s latest novel, if there’s to be only one, isn’t clear. Polio? Certainly. But maybe it’s God. Or even our superstition and ignorance. Or life, as in mortal, itself.
Or maybe it’s just playground instructor Bucky Cantor’s proclivity to take things too seriously, particularly when it comes to what his grandfather preached: “to stand up for himself as a man and to stand for himself as a Jew.” All this standing, complicates Bucky’s life. He cannot, like his friends, serve in the big European war because of his poor vision, a fact used later as metaphor for what Bucky can and can’t see. Standing up like a man means knowing better than those who love you, and doing things they would not have you do. Failing this once is a hard lesson. Failing it twice isn’t allowed, even when it precludes a better decision.
Nemesis is Roth’s The Plague. The inexplicable existentialism of the disease’s spread challenges the easy notion of standing up no matter the circumstances. Like Camus, Roth keeps his narrator hidden for a good part of the book, giving the story an omniscient depth that seems to sink and surface as the story progresses. Like Camus, Roth has Bucky pose questions, not to, but about God. As in Camus, God comes up terribly cruel or missing altogether.
Bucky’s sense of duty is a source of guilt. But it is also the source of his pride. When Italian teenagers invade the playground from their neighborhood where the disease has taken up residence, Bucky stands up to their threats and washes away their spit. His need to pass on his Grandfather’s advice to the boys on the playground makes him a hero to the boys and a champion in the neighborhood. When his love seeks to draw him away to the safety of the country he first refuses.
But not for long. His fear gets the better of him and he takes a job at an upstate summer camp away from the “equatorial” heat and disease of Newark. The experience give him both a false sense of security and new reason for fear. He’s bothered that his girlfriend’s younger sisters cling to him and kiss him on the mouth. When he and his beloved take a canoe and go to an island where they can be alone, storm clouds rumble in the distance. Despite this overplay, the moments of foreshadowing are chilling against the supposed blue-skies future.
Ethnic issues — the Italian neighborhood that the disease first over runs while the Jewish neighborhood seems, as if by God, protected — are underplayed, serving as little more than setting to the action. Placed in a time when the Holocaust was reaching its horrific zenith in Europe, the story seems designed to contrast human and natural suffering. But despite grandpa’s urging for Bucky to stand like a Jew, the comparisons are, like God, missing.
This is some of the genius of Roth’s story and keys to a short novel. He doesn’t need to connect the dots. The reader is entirely capable. Suggestion is more than enough to make the horrors of spreading death part of the tone, part of the setting.
In other ways, Roth seems to telegraph what’s coming. Bucky’s two buddies serving bravely in Europe? Don’t ask. His frequent declarations of happiness — that memory of eating a peach with his fiance’s father — suggest unhappiness looms. And don’t forget those thunder clouds advancing as the two make love.
Because of these clues, when the end comes Roth is largely able to skip over it and get right to the denouement. Now Grandpa’s advice works against Bucky. He can no longer stand like a man. His own strength and beauty gone, he relies on pride to carry him forward into a future he didn’t imagine. His narrator, during a chance encounter, hears the whole story. And he, like us, can’t quite figure it out.
Roth’s tale is at once a reminder of how our fears and superstitions color our most immediate reactions and important decisions. There’s hints that an ignorance of science, in this case, how polio is transmitted, leads to misguided anger and judgment. The ethnic and racial prejudice of the time (not so unlike the prejudice of current time) clouds understanding. There are so many of these intervening factors in the book that it’s easy to believe its title should be plural if the series didn’t already carry that name.
Despite the obvious clues where all of it is leading, Nemesis is absorbing and propulsive reading, the kind of book you want to consume in a sitting (but it will take two). Much of this is due to Roth’s craft, the smoothly consumed rhythms and phrasing as natural as a jump-rope rhyme. It’s lesson isn’t so much not to get comfortable because life has something else in store for us but, instead, not to be so forthright and resolute because, again, life has something else in store for us.–Cabbage Rabbit