Monday, February 14, 2011

Philip Roth’s Nemesis: The Way We Live, Then and Now

Author Philip Roth.

Is Philip Roth’s America’s greatest living novelist? He's certainly one of them. Although there are other contenders for that title, including Richard Ford and Richard Price, without question, I'd argue that Roth is the U.S’s most significant writer. He has created an ambitious body of work that, as he enters his late 70s, seems determined to lay bare all the significant eddies and flows of American history in the years since his birth in 1933. His latest novel Nemesis (Penguin, 2010) continues in that incisive vein, revisiting a little remembered slice of American life: the devastating polio epidemics of the 1930s and 40s.

The fourth and final book in a series called Nemeses: Short Novels; Nemesis is, as indicated, a short novel (280 pages) but it's not a slight one. Having read only one of the other three books in that series, Indignation (2008), I can safely say that their themes are what occurs when bad things happen to good people. Roth, however, doesn’t examine that idea in a trite or obvious way but in such a manner that you’ll ponder the disturbing vicissitudes of fate and the supposed existence of a god who allows horrible events to happen to innocent people. That, at least, is the thinking of one Eugene Cantor, better known as Bucky, an athletic 23 year old, who in 1944 is a playground director in Newark, New Jersey (not coincidentally Roth’s birthplace, too).

Because of his weak eyesight, Bucky has been deemed ineligible for combat during World War Two, a state of affairs which troubles him deeply. He’s determined, though, to do right by his young charges, and teach them lessons in good health and fitness. That goal, however, is impacted when some of Newark’s young teenagers come down with polio, with two of them dying of the disease. (The disease is not always fatal, but it often cripples or maims those who get it.) A panicked Bucky now has to weigh his options; does he stay put in Newark out of responsibility and risk getting polio himself or listen to the increasingly desperate entreaties of his loving girlfriend, Marcia, and take up a post in a Jewish summer camp in rural Pennsylvania, far away from the disease that is laying waste to his city? His decision will play out in an unpredictably tragic manner.

Roth’s brilliance is in how indelible his writing is, be it in his depiction of Bucky’s courageously standing up to a group of Italian anti-Semites who want to ‘share’ their polio with the then unaffected Jews of Newark, or his delineation of the rampant and free-floating general fears and superstitions about polio itself. Even though it had afflicted their President, Franklin Roosevelt, polio, in 1944, was still an incurable and little understood illness. Nemesis takes that ignorance and inextricably ties it into Bucky’s problematic persona, that of a decent but self lacerating man who, in the end, is his own worst enemy. The dénouement of what finally happens to Bucky – I'm not giving anything away here in terms of plot spoilers – revealed in the book’s third and final section, is heartbreaking and unforgettable. And while Roth never pushes the comparisons to modern day events, the issues surrounding the understanding of polio, how you get it, why certain people get it and others don’t, aren’t all that different from what transpired during the AIDS epidemic a few decades later. 

Like Indignation, which extrapolated on the events which subsume an over protective Jewish family bent on keeping its only son out of the Korean War, and with a similarly powerful conclusion, Nemesis is another valuable addition to the building blocks of Roth’s literary landscape. From his early (and comparatively rough) comedic novels and short stories, such as the infamous Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) to his more recent novels, such powerful works as American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000), Roth has consistently portrayed an America beset by political and social revolutions. From the decade of free love to the scourge of domestic terrorism to the sexual hypocrisy of the Clinton era, Roth’s America is ever changing and ever destructive to those who live there, though these individuals rarely deserve their fates. Nemesis and Indignation are smaller but no less effective variations on that lifelong theme. (Only Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel The Plot Against America, which tantalizingly speculates on what might have begun to happen to the American Jewish community if noted anti-Semite and isolationist hero Charles Lindbergh had become president in 1940, fails to satisfyingly follow through on its concept. It’s his sole failure of the imagination.)

What Roth is doing in all his books, in effect, is compiling an insider’s history of his country, uniquely filtered through the prism of his ethnic and religious community. Canada’s Mordecai Richler did the same in his literary career, though not to the same extent as Roth, and, like Richler, Roth ranges further afield than just his roots and links his ideas to universal human concerns, as all the best writers do. His creative output thus puts the lie to the contentious comments made about American literature by the Secretary of Sweden’s Academy, which annually awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2008, that august expert deemed American literature “too isolated, too insular,” which is likely why Roth has been denied the Nobel Prize he so richly deserves. That dismissal notwithstanding, Nemesis, like virtually all of Roth’s other works, superbly and vividly defines how America, and not just its Jewish citizens, actually lives – then and now.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is currently teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute. For more information click on to the Ryerson catalogue

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