Roth, Philip (2010), Nemesis, Jonathan Cape
The World Health Organization defines poliomyelitis, also known as polio, this way:
[It] is a highly infectious viral disease, which mainly affects young children. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water, and multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system. Many infected people have no symptoms, but do excrete the virus in their faeces, hence transmitting infection to others. Initial symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, and pain in the limbs. In a small proportion of cases, the disease causes paralysis, which is often permanent. Polio can only be prevented by immunization.
Before being virtually eradicated in most first world countries, it wreaked havoc in all of them. To this day roughly 40.000 polio survivors still live in Germany alone. The United States have known several outbreaks of polio before in 1962 a polio vaccine was licensed and distributed. Between 1916 and the late 1950s, polio broke out practically each summer, in various areas of the country, but with varying degrees of aggressiveness. One of the most devastating outbreaks (and easily the most aggressive outbreak since 1916) was the polio epidemic of 1944, which lasted for 5 months and affected just over 17.000 cases. The powerfully frightening effect of the sickness was exacerbated by the fact that people didn’t know yet how to cure the disease or even how it was transmitted. Until the research of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and their colleagues bore fruit in the 1950s, polio continuously killed, maimed or at least frightened children and teenagers, as well as their overwhelmed parents. Philip Roth, born in 1933, who was 11 years old at the time of the epidemic, chose to set his most recent book in just that period of time; and as is the case in most of his other recent output, the contact with personal or national history, as well as the impact of memories and the pathos of remembrance invigorates a work that has become tired and dull of late. It’s a joy to see a master craftsman (as Roth proves himself to be even in ridiculous novels such as Everyman) infuse his writing with more than routine.
And as a result of all this, Nemesis, Philip Roth’s 31st book, is easily his best novel in ten years. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t rise to the same heights as his very best work, but it unites both Roth’s impeccable prose craftsmanship and a compelling story and characters. In the past ten years, after publishing The Human Stain, Philip Roth waited to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In order to achieve this, he published a short novel once a year for the last five years. All of them could be read as career summoning achievements. Exit Ghost wrapped up the Zuckerman stories, and both Indignation and The Humbling (my review) were epics of getting old, stories that featured the typical Roth protagonist (a mix between Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh) as he battled age and decrepitude. Bursting at the seams with a lifetime of learning and misogyny, these are each succinct summaries of Roth’s work. On the other hand, this is unfair, since his work is so much better, fresher and more powerful. In fact, some of these books, especially the miserable Everyman, read like parodies of Roth, or at least like lifeless imitations. Roth doesn’t seem to be able to reach for something new: instead he re-works his old books, and in a way his recent novels present a cruel reading of the Roth oeuvre. None of these books are worth recommending to anyone but die-hard Roth devotees. Nemesis is different. While it does rely a lot on characters and types already developed by its author in previous novels, the result (and the drama) is new, and very, very good. The two Roth novels it is probably closest to are American Pastoral and The Plot Against America, but these are resemblances that are not overt or troubling in any way. Instead, Nemesis seems to be what Roth’s previous 5-6 novels tried but failed to become: a synthesis, a summary of a strand of his work that is more than imitation or creative cut & paste.
Nemesis‘ protagonist is 23 year old Bucky Cantor, a beautiful, strong, virile man, accomplished at sports and dutiful to a fault. Bucky’s grandfather had raised him to “stand up for himself as a man and to stand up for himself as a Jew”, to have pride in what he was and to have both sturdy convictions, as well as the courage to stand by them. Bucky, in many ways, is the ideal soldier and he did attempt to join the army when WWII broke out but due to his poor eyesight he was exempted from military service. Now, in the summer of 1944, while his best friends fight Nazis in France, he is a playground director in Weequahic, Newark, New Jersey. His girlfriend, from a good Jewish family, works at a summer resort and wants him to come as well, but he is loath to abandon his duties at the playground. This reticence only deepens when suddenly kids from his playground start to come down with polio, ending up in iron lungs or dead. Bucky is at a loss how to deal with this. He talks to parents, is attentive as far as hygienic matters are concerned, he tries to look out for the kids, but polio, when it arrives in Weequahic, comes out of nowhere, an invisible enemy, impossible to fight. Early in the book, before Weequahic kids are infected, there is an opportunity to face off against a visible, tangible enemy. “[T]wo cars full of Italians” pull up and Italian boys saunter up to Bucky’s playground, declaring: “we’re spreadin’ polio”. These Italians are from a Newark slum “that had reported the most cases of polio in the city so far”, and Bucky is determined not to let them spread the sickness in his neighborhood, as well. With this confrontation, the book presents its readers with the social and political parameters the rest of the novel will then continue to use. There are the working class boys, determined not to “leave you people out”, i.e. driven by resentment against a better off, healthier part of the city. On the other hand, there are the very uptight, religious, conservative, middle-class citizens of Weequahic, who couldn’t have chosen a better champion for their cause than Bucky.
This opposition is only one side of the coin, however. With the expression “you people”, the Italian ruffians don’t of course merely mean “you rich people”. There is no doubt that “you people” is also simply short for “you Jews”. With this episode placed near the beginning of the novel, we’re soon made to be aware of two levels of signification here. There is the story of Bucky Cantor and his attempt to save the kids of his neighborhood from dying of polio. And there is a clever substructure that plays with notions connected to antisemitism and medieval jew-hate and possibly even Zionism. This is not a full-fledged allegory, rather, Roth has put a few elements into play. There is polio which is clearly a stand-in for the plague. In the Middle Ages, Jews were often scapegoats for outbreaks of the plague. They were said to poison the wells, kill Christian children, etc. In Nemesis, Roth makes two kinds of use of this vile accusation: there are the Italians, who spit on the sidewalk to bring the plague to the Jews, which reverses the situation. And then there is the reaction of the citizens of Newark once polio takes over Weequahic, turning it into the most affected neighborhood: “Some of them sound as if they think the best way to get rid of the polio epidemic would be to burn down Weequahic with all the Jews in it.” Thus, things fall apart in Nemesis. Just as the superior standing of Weequahic residents takes a dive in the course of the book, so does Bucky’s personal life. After confronting the Italians and heading them off, he is left without a clear course of action, so what he does, in a way, is to offer ministration. He visits sick children in the hospital, attends funerals, and is generally the first person to call afflicted families in order to see whether he can help. He tries to ease tensions between various groups of Weequahic residents, and gets the kids out of the glaring sun whenever possible. Small things like that.
It is no accident that Philip Roth named his protagonist “Cantor”, because Bucky fills, in a non-religious, non-musical way, the role that a cantor would play in the spiritual life of a synagogue. There’s also a certain irony in that naming: as the book progresses, and more and more children fall sick or die, Bucky loses his faith in God. Or rather, he still believes God exists, but assumes that God is evil, that, for any of the faithful, it is just a matter of time before “He sticks His shiv in their back.” The primary reason for Bucky’s bitterness is not just the dying kids. It is the insidious way that God seems to kill these children, and the cruel way that He seems to make Bucky the instrument of His murderous game. And while the people of his generation die in the war against Germany (or Japan), the younger generation is struck by invisible bullets, shot from an invisible gun. As we read on and on, Bucky’s story becomes a tragic one. The disastrous developments in the city around him are increasingly mirrored by disastrous developments within himself. There’s his loss of faith, but more importantly, there is his fear of being responsible for everything. When things come to a head in Weequahic, he finally heeds the advice of his girlfriend, and takes up a job at a summer resort far, far away from the polio-ridden streets of Newark. Only it doesn’t take very long until the first boy at that resort, this innocent-seeming paradise (that could, to take up an earlier argument, be seen as a stand-in for Israel, Jews fleeing from Antisemitism, who can’t, ultimately, flee from it because it always catches up with them), until a boy that was under Bucky’s supervision falls ill and is diagnosed with polio. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Henceforth, Bucky is plagued by the question “Who brought polio here if not me?” We can anticipate that this will happen, because Roth has led us there, with a light and clear narrative.
We are made to see that what happens to Bucky Cantor is, as is the case in all the classic tragedies, necessary, destined, inescapable, because of Bucky’s harmatia. His weakness is his inability to reconcile his poor eyesight with his impeccable body, his amazingly disciplined mind. His eyesight is beyond his control, he can’t will his eyes to see clearer, and so for him, there is a line that connects his body (the body that fails him) first to polio which he doesn’t understand and can’t fight, and then to God, who he can’t fight and at whose mercy he finds himself to be. The inability to deal with bodily imperfection poisons his mind so deeply and thoroughly that everything else that happens follows. It is impossible to describe how different Bucky is from Roth’s usual characters. Roth’s characters, even when they are weak, acknowledge that weakness with a swagger. There is a constant sense of superiority in them. A character who is as desperately earnest as Bucky Cantor is rare in Roth’s work. He does, however, contain characteristic traits from several characters in Roth’s oeuvre. More to the point, he appears to be a mélange of the Swede from American Pastoral and the typical Roth/Zuckermann/Kepesh persona, with added insecurities and earnestness. This focus on character flaws as leading to a tragic destiny is supported by a web of Greek allusions and influences. There is not just the eponymous Nemesis, the Greek spirit of divine retribution. Roth also constructed Bucky Cantor to correspond in several respects to Achilles, and, as with the other subtext, various elements of the story can be seen to have an equivalent in events as re-told by the Illiad or other Greek texts of the period. Apollo’s invisible arrows bringing the plague, Achilles’ unique handsomeness, and his proverbial heel, it all fits the mold.
While none of these two allusions to Antisemitism and to Greek myth, are exact, and used in a thorough manner, they are nevertheless relevant here, and more than just imaginary, because Nemesis puts a strong emphasis (as many of Roth’s novels do) on the process of storytelling, and the reliability of memory and individual stories. Nemesis is not told by Bucky, nor by an omniscient narrator. It is told by someone who was a boy when all this happened. The narrator, for almost the complete novel, is invisible. He refers to himself only once when naming three infected boys, including himself among them. At the end of the book, however, he breaks off the narrative, and returns us to a more contemporary setting. He tells us how he encountered Bucky many years later, and how Bucky then told him his story, which he, in turn, relates to us. In a way, we, Bucky and the narrator are part of a sophisticated game of Chinese whispers, and the mythical and historical parallels and allusions remind us of the fact that Bucky’s story is told to us in a highly complex, clever and accomplished way. How many real people actually resemble Achilles? Really, Nemesis is about the loss of childhood illusions, the loss of unfettered belief in the invincibility of admired authority figures, the loss of security as we enter a life of uncertainties, a world of violence, death and warring faiths. Although the story is literarily heightened, the book still presents a stark look at history, and unlike his previous exercises in considering history, Roth really comes though, this time. There is no sugarcoating at the end, no comforting adage or twist. Nemesis is bleak, moving, and marvelously written. Yes, it is too careful, too timid, too conventional to be great, but it is a very good novel about growing up in the modern world, and the interconnection of American history with Antisemitism, myth and archetype.
A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.