Nemesis is both an important novel and an unpleasant one. Unpleasantness is a hallmark of Phillip Roth: The vague but fascinating insecurities, dark passions and tragedies that froth beneath the surface of Irwin Shaw are unremitting in Roth, who likes to drop his readers into a world where nobody smiles (or not for long, at any rate). The beautiful and masterful reality of the world he constructs – a reality which we can feel in every line of dialogue, of description and of character action – makes the whole thing more depressing. Roth, it seems, only plays in minor keys.
But this is strong, vigorous tragedy, without a trace of sentimentality, full of movement.
Every year before 1954 – the first year the Salk vaccine was widely tested – polio made summertime a terror for children (who were most susceptible) and even more of a terror for parents, who fully understood the implications of potentially lifelong paralysis – which, in the case of pulmonary paralysis, would put the victim in an iron lung or could send him, in less than 24 hours, to the morgue. It is a tribute to Doctor Jonas Salk’s immeasurable contribution to mankind that Roth must begin his novel (published in 2010) by telling his readers what polio was.
The story is set in the wartime summer of 1944, in Newark, New Jersey – Roth’s own hometown (for Roth is more a master-observer than an essentially creative novelist). The playground director, Bucky Cantor, is a refreshingly straightforward hero, fighting his helplessness both against the polio virus and against the poor eyesight which kept him out of the army, but determined to protect his kids.
Like Shaw, but even to a stronger extent, the thing Roth struggles with on every page he writes is his Judaism. (It’s a Jacob-against-the-angel sort of struggle.) Roth wants to reject Judaism, he constantly tries to fling it away, but he can’t escape and is just as constantly, magnetically and irresistibly pulled back to it. His awareness is too finely tuned, too delicately thoughtful to be anything but Jewish. But he refuses to resign himself to his inescapable orbit. This finally erupts in an extraordinary epilogue where the hitherto passive narrator – a child on the playground who, it seemed up to this point, might just as well have been an inert, observing ghost – runs into Bucky Cantor twenty years later, and we are treated to a battle between two different Philip Roths: the one that rejects God as non-existent, and the one that believes in God as an all-powerful and essentially mean-spirited destroyer of happiness. The really remarkable thing is that the theme, or moral, that emerges from this showdown couldn’t be more Jewish or more deeply, spiritually religious: Choose Life! This, astonishingly, is the argument of the Roth who rejects God.
I have set before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse: Therefore choose Life, that you and your children may live.
Accuracy and ear: 9/10
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10
Nemesis, by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, 304 pages.