On the "Books
by" pages in Philip Roth's books, he likes to group his titles, often by
their lead characters. There are the Zuckerman books, with Nathan Zuckerman
leading a long quest to know both his own heart and that of his country (and
these themselves grouped, with the first four, from 1979 to 1983, as a quartet;
American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, from
1998 to 2000, as a trilogy; and The
1986, and Exit Ghost, from
2007, floating on their own). There are the three Kepesh books, with the
increasingly curdling, unknowing David Kepesh; and Roth books, with Roth
himself as a fictional character (even in The
suspends its subtitled premise as A
Novelist's Autobiography when at the end Nathan Zuckerman shows up to urge
Roth not to publish it). There are Miscellany (criticism and reflection) and
Other books, which include some of the most memorable: Portnoy's Complaint (1969), The Great American Novel (1973),
and Sabbath's Theater (1995).
Up until now, Other is where the very short novels Roth
has been publishing since 2006 -- starting with Everyman, then Indignation (2008),
and, at about 25,000 words, the very, very short The Humbling (2009) -- were
placed. With Nemesis, the four books
are placed together, as Nemeses, and that is how they should be read: as a
wildly varied single work, even if the group title is, for me, misleading.
"Nemeses" implies different nagging, ever-present, elusive, daunting,
and finally indefinable and even unbeatable enemies that one must struggle
against nevertheless. As I read, death is the single nemesis in these books,
one after the other, even if in Nemesis Bucky
Cantor is there at the end to tell his story -- the story of a life given up to
death many years before.
Those who seek to pin a novelist's every offering to his
or her real life -- mining for nuggets of what people who fundamentally mistrust
fiction can take as merely disguised but fact-checkable autobiographical truth,
or in some way paralleling the writer's status in life as a book appears -- will
not find satisfaction here. Everyman,
set after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, concerns the
slow, almost mechanical death of an unnamed seventy-one-year-old man from
Elizabeth, New Jersey, who survives a torment of surgeries and replacements
until, finally, he doesn't. Well, with the lack of a name allowing the hero, or
victim, to be everyman, or one man in particular, you could have read that as
the author's working out of his own fears of inexorable diminishment if you
liked. Written in the third person, the book is stolid, mechanical, banal, and
unconvincing -- jerry-built. It's as if the form -- the telling of a whole life as it
crumbles, in not very many pages, an argument finally that at its end almost
any life can feel as if it is caught up short, and thus can be caught
short -- defeated the writer. But then with Indignation,
Marcus Messner of Newark is a sophomore at a small college in Ohio -- or rather
was, as he is telling his story from beyond a very recent grave -- and Roth is
speeding the tale on winds of glee, fury, rebellion, laughter, and confusion (" --
because I was a Jew, because I wasn't an engineering student, because I wasn't
a fraternity boy, because I wasn't interested in tinkering with car engines or
manning tugboats, because I wasn't whatever else I wasn't -- ") that haven't
been at his back since Portnoy's
Only a year
later in publishing time, with The Humbling,
set in the publishing present, there is Simon Axler, a renowned dramatic actor
in his sixties recently abandoned by his wife, overwhelmed by an all but
absolute suicidal depression, then rescuing himself with an affair with a
forty-year-old lesbian, an affair he convinces himself will last the rest of
his life and make it new every day. Again written in the third person, the book
is warm, desperate, passionate, funny, with the man and the woman springing to
life in a few sentences and then sent on their way. The story goes to sexual
extremes -- extremes that quickly reveal one life to the man and another to the
woman. But her new life is real and his is a fantasy, and so he returns himself
to real life with the reality that can't be gainsaid; as he was about to do
when the novel began, he kills himself. There is no hint that it was anybody
else's fault. There was a truer rescue hidden in the story, but he couldn't see
it -- or rather there was another woman in the story, no older than the woman he
fell in love with, but he was not attracted to her, and without that, the
hidden rescue is just the reader's fantasy, and the novelist's proof that, as
Axler says early on to a doctor, "Nothing
has a good reason for happening."
Roth leaps back again, to Newark in 1944, in the summer, polio season -- but this
year, the worst outbreak of polio in a lifetime, and long before there was even
a glimpse of a vaccine. The fact of the eradication of polio, an affliction
unknown in the lifetime of most Americans now, only makes Roth's recreation of
the disease all but horror-movie immediate: unstoppable, unpredictable,
unknowable, evading diagnosis until it is too late, with cases spreading
through a neighborhood by the hour and children dead overnight or consigned to
an iron lung for the rest of their lives (and what is an iron lung, any reader
might have to ask, only to find out, and then be horrified at how polio could
redefine everyday life?).
Bucky Cantor, excluded from the Army because of his bad eyesight, is a young playground director at a Newark
public school. He comes burdened with stones: his mother died in childbirth,
his father was a convicted felon, he was raised by his mother's parents, and as
the story opens his grandfather, a rock, is three years dead. Bucky -- the
nickname his grandfather gave him when, working in the family store as a boy,
he showed guts, quick sense, pluck, bravery -- has disciplined himself for life. A
career as a public school teacher is as noble a calling as he can conceive -- and
as it is a noble calling, it will demand everything he can give. He can never
surrender to fear, temptation, sloth, pleasure, doubt. As we meet him it is
easy to believe that he won't.
"Mr. Cantor had been twenty and a college junior when
the U.S. Pacific Fleet was bombed and nearly destroyed in the surprise attack
at Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941," reads an early passage, and
any reader might ask -- why are you telling us all this? Even if I don't remember
polio, I've heard of Pearl Harbor. From
this point on the same page, the sentences descend steadily, doggedly, like
steps, one piece of information after the other, and you wonder, why is this
going so slowly?
It's not just that Roth has changed speeds again, and
again changed the way the story is being told -- it reads so fully as a
third-person narrative that the reader can altogether forget that there is a
hint in the book's second sentence that this is not so, and be utterly
surprised when, at the end, the narrator steps forward to seal the tale. Rather
information is being pieced out slowly so that the reader experiences how the
events in the story were received as they happened: as explosions that no
one -- no matter how loud or quiet each event's arrival, whether Pearl Harbor or
an epidemic's first death -- could have imagined as the all-consuming cataclysms
they would become. As polio spreads through the Weequahic district of Newark
where Cantor's playground is, he visits his mother's grave, and remembers a
story his grandmother told him, about a day when she brought home live carp to
make gefilte fish, keeping "them alive in the tin tub that the family used
for taking baths."
One day when Mr. Cantor's mother
was five years old, she'd come bounding up the stairs after kindergarten, found
the fish swimming in the tub, and after quickly removing her clothes, got into
the tub to play with them. His grandmother found her there when she came up
from the store to fix her an afternoon snack. They never told his grandfather
what the child had done for fear that he might punish her for it. Even when the
little boy was told about the fish by his grandmother -- he was then himself in
kindergarten -- he was cautioned to keep the story a secret so as not to upset his
grandfather, who, in the first years after his cherished daughter's death, was
able to deflect the anguish of losing her only by never speaking of her.
This is a
moment not only of peace and surcease -- it is a moment where a life that once
seemed real is slipping into the past, from where it can never be retrieved. Not
because it will disappear from memory, but because such a secret, wrapped in
love and cruelty -- the way the genteel, even greeting-card prose of "his
cherished daughter's death" is ambushed, really killed, by "never
speaking of her" -- is precisely what life is now taking away. As the hammer
begins to come down, one blow after another, nothing can be kept secret. Everybody
knows which house, which playground, which summer camp, which cabin, harbors illness, contagion, and death.
The past is meaningless: these deaths are not the wages of any sin. Only the
future matters, and the future is measured in days that, in an inversion of the
commonplace blues couplet, seem like hours, in hours that seem like minutes.
never predictable. There is a sex scene between Cantor and Marcia Steinberg,
his fiancée, on a wooded island in the lake of the summer camp where Cantor
goes at the height of the epidemic, that -- like the sex scene between Jack and
Anne in Robert Penn Warren's 1946 All the
King's Men -- in its
demureness is in literary terms so purely of the time in which it is set, and
thus with all that is barely allowed to happen so thrilling, that you can
imagine the joy Roth might have felt pulling it off, and for the moment pulling
away from the nothing-left-out sex scene that upends The Humbling. But even more unpredictable is Bucky Cantor
as -- testing against an invisible enemy all those qualities in which he steeled
himself as a boy and a young man -- his presence on the page grows smaller and
smaller, and the reader begins to cease to trust him.
Bucky Cantor is not very smart. For all of his
self-inculcated virtues, he cannot make himself more intelligent than he is. Thinking
demands doubt; Bucky Cantor cannot tolerate it. Every decision he makes he
makes in a kind of self-lacerating, self-righteous panic, where there are only
absolutes of courage and weakness, and the reader begins to shrink in disgust,
or movie-goer refusal (No! They were made
for each other! It can't end this way!), as Bucky's embrace of Marcia turns
into self-abnegation, and all that is left of his life is pride, and here that
sin really is the wages of death.
Whether or not these short novels continue to occupy Roth,
under the rubric of Nemeses or not, when one reads them as of a piece, two
qualities in particular stand out. One is playfulness -- the creation of a field
of fiction where one can play with narrators and historical time, where one can
create characters and allow them to find their own ends. The other is
generosity, or affection, or love.
Reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, one
can be overwhelmed by the contempt of a writer for his characters: by his proof
in almost every sentence, as one person after another is introduced to the
reader as a small figure of vanity, smugness, stupidity, venality, or pettiness,
of his superiority to his characters. Roth is not incapable of this: there is
Delphine Roux in The Human Stain. But
in his Nemeses books he not only follows his characters with empathy, as if
absorbing their pain as he crafts it; in a way that speaks for the queer and
implacable anonymity of the voice behind each of the books, Roth does not look
down on his characters, he looks up to them.
Roth continues his string of small, anti-Horatio Alger novels (The Humbling; etc.) with this underwhelming account of Bucky Cantor, the young playground director of the Chancellor Avenue playground in 1944 Newark. When a polio outbreak ravages the kids at the playground, Bucky, a hero to the boys, becomes spooked and gives in to the wishes of his fiancée, who wants him to take a job at the Pocono summer camp where she works. But this being a Roth novel, Bucky can't hide from his fate. Fast-forward to 1971, when Arnie Mesnikoff, the subtle narrator and one of the boys from Chancellor, runs into Bucky, now a shambles, and hears the rest of his story of piercing if needless guilt, bad luck, and poor decisions. Unfortunately, Bucky's too simple a character to drive the novel, and the traits that make him a good playground director--not very bright, quite polite, beloved, straight thinking--make him a lackluster protagonist. For Roth, it's surprisingly timid. (Oct.)
During the summer of 1944, young men like Bucky Cantor needed good reason not to be fighting overseas. Though he had bad eyesight, was the sole support of his grandmother, and was the best phys ed teacher Newark's Chancellor Avenue School ever saw, Bucky's guilt informed his life that long, hot summer and forever changed its trajectory. With an incredible eye for historical detail, Roth paints a vivid picture of the polio epidemic that hit the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic on the Fourth of July weekend, pitting ignorance against science, neighbor against neighbor, and fear against common sense. Bucky excels at his job, keeping the kids active and naively believing that he can personally hold the disease at bay. But as one child after another falls ill, he loses faith in God even as he obsesses over the chance to join his girlfriend, Marcia, in the Poconos. VERDICT Roth, one of our greatest American writers, is unrivaled in his mastery at evoking mid-20th-century New Jersey, but it's the thoughtful examination of the toll guilt takes on the psyche, the futility of raging against God or Fate, and the danger of turning blame inward that give this short novel its power. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/10.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib., Ft. Myers, FL
For those who monitor the growing list of books by Philip Roth, his forthcoming, Nemesis, presents a revelation as startling as the discovery of a planet or the alignment of a new constellation.
The top of the list remains reassuringly familiar: "Zuckerman Books" (those featuring Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's alter ego), "Roth Books" (another alter ego, "Philip Roth," in a category that includes fiction and nonfiction alike) and "Kepesh Books" (another serial protagonist who may or may not be an alter ego).
But then there is an emergent category: "Nemeses: Short Fiction," which encompasses four recent novels, including the new one. What this means to the ardent Roth reader is that three works previously considered unrelated—Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and The Humbling (2009), formerly scattered at the list's bottom with some of his earliest efforts as "Other Books," are now connected. And Nemesis provides the key to that connection.
A little longer than the other three, Nemesis could be the darkest novel Roth has written and ranks with the most provocative. It's a parable of innocence lost in the author's native Newark, where polio threatens a neighborhood that is already sacrificing young men to World War II. The protagonist is Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old playground director, who has seen his best friends enlist in the war while he was rejected for poor eyesight.
Instead, "Mr. Cantor" (as his charges call him) finds himself facing a more insidious enemy. "No medicine existed to treat the disease and no vaccine to produce immunity...(it) could befall anyone, for no apparent reason," writes Roth. It arrives without warning, and it changes everything. If anything, it was scarier than cancer or AIDS is now.
Narrating the story is one of polio's victims, though he barely emerges as a character until the novel's epiphany. Until then, Roth lets the reader wonder how a narrator named only in passing could penetrate the protagonist's mind and relate a series of incidents that the narrator couldn't have witnessed.
As Bucky's boys succumb to the disease, temptation lures him from the city to what appears to be a safe oasis, an idyllic summer camp where his girlfriend works. Yet his conscience (already plagued by his 4-F status) pays the price for his escape, an escape that might prove illusory.
What is Bucky's nemesis? Maybe polio. Maybe God, "who made the virus," who kills children with "lunatic cruelty." Maybe mortality—death and the decay that precedes it, the ravages of time that distinguish man from God.
But maybe Bucky's nemeses include Bucky himself—a layer of meaning that makes this novel something other than another retelling of Job and forces the reader to reconsider the previously published "Nemeses" in fresh light. For it is within these short novels that Roth tackles nothing less than the human condition, which finds its nemesis in the mirror.
…stands out for its warmth…suffused with precise and painful tenderness…Given its pall of war and disease, Nemesis is surprisingly dense with happinessa happiness that's ever-tenuous, and the sweeter for it…The architecture of Roth's sentences is almost invisibly elegant; not only doesn't one notice the art, one barely notices the sentence, registering instead pure function: meaning, rhythm, intent. Is it impertinent to suggest Roth outdoes himself here by getting out of his own way? This short book has all his brilliance, minus the bluster.
The New York Times
“Roth’s book has the elegance of a fable and the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama.”—The New Yorker
“An artfully constructed, suspenseful novel with a cunning twist towards the end.”—J. M. Coetzee, New York Review of Books
“Elegant. . . . Suffused with precise and painful tenderness. . . . Stands out for its warmth.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Painful and powerful. . . . Somberly but vividly, [Roth] recreates the panic and fear triggered by polio.” —USA Today
“A perfectly proportioned Greek tragedy played out against the background of the polio epidemic that swept Newark, New Jersey, during the summer of 1944.” —Financial Times
“Like a very well-executed O. Henry story. . . . A parable about the embrace of conscience. . . .and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Yet another small triumph from one of our native artists largest in spirit. And by small I mean in length of the book. . . . This dual portrait, of a neighborhood and of a man quite representative of the times when trouble struck his neighborhood with lethal force, gives this new novel a singular appeal.” —Chicago Tribune
“Roth writes a lean, vigorous prose that burns with the intensity of his purpose. It flows smoothly even when he wrestles with the knottiest of philosophical problems.” —Plain Dealer
“Exquisite. It is utterly straightforward American realism that could almost have been written not long after Letting Go and Goodbye Columbus at the beginning of Roth’s career.” —Buffalo News
“Roth is all about character and how we are shaped by improbable circumstances, and here he offers up insight to match his many years on the job.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Grippingly and with documentary expertise, it tells a story set in the devastating 1944 polio epidemic. . . . Roth writes vividly of heat-choked streets and cramped houses.” —Boston Globe
“Classic Roth: handsomely written, historically evocative and brutally honest about human emotions. . . . Impressive.” —Richmond Times Dispatch
“Roth’s prose, that magnificent voice of his, has always fed off the twin passions of lust and rage.” —The New Republic
“Roth does an excellent job of conjuring up the fear that polio caused before the arrival of a vaccine. . . . Cantor is one of Roth’s best creations and the atmosphere of terror is masterfully fashioned.” —The Daily Telegraph (UK)
“Roth has always been terrific at rendering the times and places close to his own youth. And in Nemesis, he masterly contrasts the sweaty, close world of all-day ball games and nights spent on front stoops with affluence and young love developing in the cool countryside. . . . A quick, propulsive read full of chiseled storytelling.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Some of the most scathing and beautiful prose of our time.” —The Toronto Star
“Part of the appeal—and the strangeness—of Roth’s novel is the way that it renders this situation, with its seemingly undramatic topic and unlikely protagonist, without hyperbole, yet maintains a grasp on the tension and ethical drama.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)