Philip Roth, “Nemesis”

National Public Radio called “Nemesis” a “repetitive, oversimplified tale.”

The good old Washington Post said of Philip Roth: “He seems unable to write convincingly of the drama at the center of our lives: a deep, vital and passionate commitment to another person.”

And even the The Slate characterized Bucky Cantor, the center of attention in this book about polio and the communicative nature of fear, a “rather pallid hero.”

Put it this way: I’m glad I wasn’t deterred.

Fear is the central theme of “Nemesis.”  Managing fear, staying on top of it, recognizing it, suppressing it. We are carriers of disease, we are carriers of fear. We might not be able to choose whether we transmit a disease, we can try our best to avoid being the agents of fear.  (Not a bad theme for 2010, or 2011….or….)

“Nemesis” is straightforward, plainly told. This is a quick read.  Without Roth’s name on it, few readers might guess it’s his work, though the Newark settings (sparely rendered) might be a clue. The style is relentlessly calm, reflective.  The smooth Roth prose makes it eminently readable.

The “nemesis” is a surge of deadly polio cases.  It’s the mid-1940’s in Newark, New Jersey.  Polio is picking its victims at random—or so it seems.  The cause is unclear.  In the background, drowned out by the polio scare, a war is being waged in Europe. The war is picking its victims at random—or so it seems.

Bucky Cantor, a gym teacher, oversees students and their vital playground—and watches the carnage from polio take its toll, all the while thinking he’d rather be fighting in the war. Cantor’s poor eyesight keeps him out of action.

Everywhere, lines are being drawn. Victims and non-victims. Neighborhoods divided by race, the poorer ones presumed to be the likely source of the disease.  A hot dog stand is blamed. The “wop bastards” are blamed. There are those who can escape the city and those who cannot. There’s what’s happening to Jews in Europe and how Jews are being treated in the United States. There are those who succumb to the fear and those who stand cool and undaunted.

A doctor tells Cantor: “You have a conscience, and a conscience is a valuable attribute, but not if it begins to make you think you’re to blame for what is far beyond the scope of your responsibility.”

In the same conversation, a bit later, the doctor (who is the father of a girl Cantor fancies) says he against “the frightening of Jews, period. That was Europe, that’s why Jews fled. This is America. The less fear the better. Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us. Fostering less fear—that’s your job and mine.”

Perhaps getting away from Newark will help.  A camp.  An island on the lake at the camp.  Or maybe escape through love.

In such a brief volume, Roth weaves in all the meaningful themes—guilt, God, death, ignorance, uncertainty, fate.  Does it matter whether you see fate coming? Does it matter how you deal with it if you’ve first pondered your chances avoiding it?  Is the “nemesis” the disease, or us?

Not all reviewers panned it.  Writer Edward Docx in The Guardian:

“One of the things that makes a writer great rather than merely good is their ability to get the fully realised account of an individual to stand for something wider and deeper – a community, a nation, even (at rare best) humanity itself. Needless to say, this is much harder to achieve when the focus is inward-looking or concerned with a very particular and priapic desire – though Roth has, of course, managed even this feat before. In the context of his late work, Nemesis – if it’s not too sinister to say so – is a breath of fresh air, because polio provides Roth with a new, outward-looking and substantial subject around which his writing can thrive; and, perhaps for this reason, the book contains many of the things that I find most exhilarating in his work.”

Ah, leave it to The Brits.  “Nemesis” is a powerful book.


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