The literary icon's latest novel considers the effects of a polio epidemic in 1940s New Jersey
Nemesis, by Philip Roth
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 Counterlife”, from 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 Facts”, which 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 71-year-old man from Elizabeth, N.J., 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 Complaint”.
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 60s recently abandoned by his wife, overwhelmed by an all but absolute suicidal depression, then rescuing himself with an affair with a 40-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.”
With “Nemesis” 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 20 and a college junior when the U.S. Pacific Fleet was bombed and nearly destroyed in the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on Sunday, Dec. 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 5 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.
“Nemesis” is never predictable. There is a sex scene between Cantor and Marcia Steinberg, his fiancee, 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.