Philip Roth's recent novels have often gestured playfully towards the idea of a serene late style. Simon Axler in The Humbling (2009) broods on Prospero's "Our revels now are ended" speech from The Tempest; Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's most famous mask, sets a scene in Exit Ghost (2007) to Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs – music chosen "for the profundity that is achieved not by complexity but by clarity and simplicity . . . The composer drops all masks and, at the age of 82, stands before you naked. And you dissolve." Do these references mean that Roth, who is now 77, is abjuring furious artifice for a sage-like calm? Of course not. Late Roth has more in common with the late Ibsen described in an essay by Edward Said: "An angry and disturbed artist who uses drama as an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before." Said called this kind of style, which he found deeply interesting, a "deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against".
Roth's fifth novel in as many years comes with a reorganised "Books By Philip Roth" page. Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and The Humbling have been plucked from their old home under "Other Books" and assigned, along with Nemesis, to "Nemeses: Short Novels". Perhaps these four books are now a quartet, to be published in single volume down the line. If so, they make a harsh and challenging one. Everyman, a stark, ferociously controlled account of the life and death of an anonymous New York ad man, with an emphasis on the death part, is difficult to fault. Indignation and The Humbling, on the other hand, are jaggedly assembled, red herring-littered books, held together mostly by Roth's buttonholing intensity. "The omnipotence of caprice. The likelihood of reversal. Yes, the unpredictable reversal and its power," a character rants in The Humbling (which was reviewed, a bit unfairly, as an exhibition of Harold Brodkey-like sexual grandiloquence). Individuals being destroyed by a cosmic caprice to which their errors of judgment are merely a garnish: this seems to be the tragic model in these two books.
Eugene "Bucky" Cantor, the central character in Nemesis, is another of these faintly struggling figures. He's also an uncomplicated, relentlessly nice young man, so the reader knows that he'll be destroyed with a special vehemence, which gives the long pile-up of his admirable attributes an increasingly menacing quality. The offspring of a mother who died in childbirth and a gambling, fraudster father, he was raised by his grandparents, who instilled in him a creed of self-reliance and responsibility. He lives with his ageing grandmother in order to look after her. The first member of his family to go to college, he's been exempted from the draft – it's 1944 – on account of his poor eyesight, to his great regret. A natural athlete, devoted equally to civic wellbeing and the Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey, he teaches gym and serves as a playground director, in which capacity he's kind, patient and revered by his students. And if that's not enough, his girlfriend, Marcia, is beautiful, clever and just as nice.
The first half of this shortish novel – its 280 pages have very generous margins – introduces Bucky in the middle of a summer polio epidemic, a life-changing event before a vaccine was developed. (Like Indignation, in which the central character dies in the Korean war, the book can be read in part as an imaginative revisiting of the dangers surrounding the historical Philip Roth's youth.) Bucky is referred to here as "Mr Cantor", indicating that the otherwise non-childlike narrator, who doesn't show his face until later on, is remembering him partly from a child's point of view. From this double perspective, we're shown Mr Cantor taking his duties seriously as the children in his care begin to sicken and die and the epidemic tests the community's cohesion. "Why don't they use disinfectant? Disinfect everything," distraught Jewish mothers cry out in the street. Elsewhere, there's talk of blaming the Jews for the outbreak. In secret, Bucky begins to hold a malevolent god responsible; he also comes to see his job as his personal second world war.
In the course of this section – part sinewy historical fiction, part inscrutable moral fable – Roth increases the tension by piling on even more niceness. Marcia's father, a doctor, not only calms Bucky down ("A misplaced sense of responsibility can be a debilitating thing") but executes "a little jig" when asked for his daughter's hand. "You have it," he says. "I couldn't be more thrilled." Then, just as hysteria is peaking in Newark and Bucky is looking unlikely to withstand another terrifically executed visit to a grieving family, Marcia calls from Pennsylvania. A job as waterfront director has abruptly been vacated at the American Indian-themed Jewish summer camp where she's working. If he takes it, and it's as good as his, there's an island they can go to be alone in the evenings – a sexual idyll far from the broiling, death-filled city. Bucky, with his grandfather's stern spirit at his elbow, says no: his students need him more than ever. A day later, he surprises himself by changing his mind.
As promised, happy children romp all day at Indian Hill in a health-giving natural landscape, a long way from the war in Europe and the polio epidemic. The narrator begins to use the name "Bucky" instead of "Mr Cantor", reminding the reader that the central character is only 23, and in spite of a lover's quarrel caused by Bucky's newfound views on God, the promised sexual idyll comes to pass. Roth also brings in some unexpected comedy, as opposed to scalding irony, in the person of the camp's owner, Mr Blomback, who belongs to an Indian-inflected outdoor pursuits movement ("one of our country's greatest achievements") and likes to make inspirational speeches while wearing a feather headdress. ("No worse, I guess," a camp employee muses, "than what happens in shul.") Despite a few conscience-related pangs, Bucky quickly gets wind of "that phantom, future happiness". Yes, all is well, until suddenly it isn't, and Roth – with unsentimental terseness – brings the long-prepared catastrophe down.
Unlike Simon Axler, Marcus Messner in Indignation and the unnamed protagonist of Everyman, however, Bucky doesn't die, though he's destroyed as an athlete and a sexual and social being. In the final section, the narrator meets him years later, and we're given to understand that the real catastrophe isn't what happened in 1944, or even "how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance", but Bucky's stance towards these states of affairs. Guilty of no more than bad moral luck, he chooses to condemn both himself and the universe, and the narrator delivers a harsh verdict: "I have to say that however much I might sympathise with the amassing of woes that had blighted his life, this is nothing more than stupid hubris, not the hubris of will or desire but the hubris of fantastical, childish religious interpretation." The limited central figure – in effect a diminished version of Swede Levov from American Pastoral (1997) – stands condemned as a "maniac of the why" who "has to convert tragedy into guilt". (And yet, Roth characteristically has the narrator add, "maybe Bucky wasn't mistaken".)
Behind this moral argument, there's a reinvigorated engagement with American Jewish life. Those distraught women ("Disinfect everything") might remind readers of Portnoy's mother, and provoke the thought that all that cleaning wasn't so neurotic after all. On the other hand, the novel's emphasis on guilt as an agent of destruction might not have won Mrs Portnoy's wholehearted approval. There are also questions about the Holocaust, taking place at the same time as the novel's action: if an epidemic in Newark is "real war too, a war of slaughter, ruin, waste, and damnation", as Bucky thinks, then what kind of perspective can be brought to bear on what's happening in Europe? But in the end, and despite the sometimes bizarre spectacle of Roth setting up uninflected niceness to crush, Nemesis is most memorable as his least contemptuously spun out story since Everyman. In one of the few positive reviews of The Humbling, the novelist James Lever remarked that the recent novels mostly boil down to "irony and scenery", and sometimes precious little scenery. Here Roth has got scenery, and even one or two jokes, back in place.
By Miguel Fernandes Ceia
The blurb on the dust cover of Philip Roth’s Nemesis is pretty accurate, ‘a terrifying epidemic is raging’, ‘focusing on [Bucky] Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground—and the realities he faces’, ‘an energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic’ in the summer of 1944. This is it—the blurb is not misleading, there are no plot twists and no last minute deus ex machina—this is what the reader will find.
Having set out his piece, Roth goes on to explore his themes, such as the Jewish predicament, hysteria, anger, bewilderment, and suffering, all in relation with the main character, Bucky Cantor. He is described as having an unbending sense of duty and honour, instilled in him by his now-dead grandfather. The novel is in three parts, each corresponding to one of Bucky Cantor’s moral failures—failures in his own view, of course.
The first failure is his inability to go to war: poor eyesight made him stay behind whilst his best friends were either fighting German forces in Europe or Japanese forces in the Pacific. It is, of course, not Bucky Cantor’s fault that he has a physical impairment, but that just makes the character more endearing to the reader. We are now used to disabled characters, such as Gregory House; disability is almost fashionable. Nevertheless, this is not such a new notion, William Gaddis noted in his essay, ‘The Rush for the Second Place’, that having a fracturing quandary was becoming fashionable,
‘the day’s mail brings flyers offering courses in Mid-life Crisis, Stress Management, Success Through Assertiveness, Reflexology, Shiatsu, Hypnocybernetics, and The Creative You. Books disappear overnight or are instant ‘best-sellers’: mortifying confessionals and est, group therapy, primal screams and “making it,” pious plagiaries on moral fiction and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s TM Technique for reducing blood pressure and increasing self-esteem. Even impotence is briefly chic; the movie screen offers the dreary sentimental humanisms of Woody Allen achieved at the expense of cast and audience alike and, for the beer crowd, Rocky’ (Gaddis).
In order to sublimate his own sense of failure, Bucky Cantor takes a position for the summer as Playground Director in the Weequahic section of Newark. All goes swell until the polio epidemic starts spreading. This moment is both a blessing and a curse to the main character: he finds a sense of purpose, something to fight against, to wage his personal war on and thus feel useful, but he also has to watch the children he is taking care of either die or become severely ill.
This takes us to the troubled relationship Cantor has with the notion of God, ‘Why didn’t God answer the prayers of Alan Michael’s parents? They must have prayed. Herbie Steinmark’s parents must have prayed. They’re good people. They’re good Jews. Why didn’t God intervene for them? Why didn’t He save their boys? (…) I don’t know why God created polio in the first place. What was He trying to prove?’
Then, when the epidemic is fully-fledged, Cantor gets the opportunity to leave the playground and join his girlfriend in a summer camp where there is no polio. Despite his early apprehension, especially his sense of abandoning the children for his own well-being, which naturally clashed with his education, he eventually goes to the Indian Hill camp, and in doing so, Bucky Cantor’s fails for the second time.
As the polio epidemic starts raging at Indian Hill, Bucky Cantor blames himself for it, even though at the time it was not known how polio was transmitted and how it travelled. The realisation that he might have been the ‘Typhoid Mary of the Chancellor playground (…) the playground polio carrier (…) the Indian Hill polio carrier’, is Bucky Cantor’s third failure, the one that eventually crushes him.
After the Plague of Aegina, according to Ovid, had killed all animals and man, a new generation was born, even stronger, from the ground, from the earth: they were called Myrmidons. The polio epidemic Roth talks about in his book did not only not provide a better generation (do bear in mind that the polio vaccine, though first tested in 1952, was only widely available in 1962), but the generation it made was physically and emotionally impaired. Poignantly, another of Roth’s characters, Arnold Mesnikoff, owns a ’(…) contracting firm specializing in architectural modification for wheelchair accessibility (…) the only such outfit in populous Northern Jersey at a moment when serious attention was beginning to be paid to the singular needs of the disabled’.
But by not becoming stronger, physically and emotionally, Bucky Cantor is a more human character, closer to our own failures, and that is where this novel excels—in its humanity.
GADDIS, William (2004). Agapē Agape and Other Writings. London: Atlantic Books.
OVID (1998). Metamorphosis. Translated by AD Melville Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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