Back to Basics: Nemesis by Philip Roth

on Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The plague as literary device has a long and distinguished history. Albert Camus used it to devastating effect as a critical metaphor for France's cowardice in the face of the Nazi threat. Fellow Nobel laureate Jose Saramago's tale of a contagion that blinded an entire country was an equally powerful examination of the fragility of 'community', unmasking humanity's propensity to resort to base instincts when faced with challenges to its survival. Now the last great man of American letters, Philip Roth, has entered the fray with his new novel Nemesis, the story of an unlikely Jewish adonis struck down both physically and emotionally by New Jersey's polio epidemic of 1944.

Eugene “Bucky” Canter is about as far from the typically hapless Jewish Roth caricature as you could get. Sporty, popular, self-sufficient and successful, he only escaped being drafted because of his poor eyesight. Now the playground director at Chancellor Avenue School's summer program, he has become a hero to the small pack of Jewish kids in his charge. Yet under his chipper exterior Bucky is battling with the guilt of staying behind while his friends are off fighting in Europe. His personal woes are soon to take a back seat, however, as reports of local children succumbing to polio begin to filter out. As if the sweltering summer was not already a breeding ground for frustration and claustrophobia, the disease quickly reaches epidemic proportions and Bucky can do nothing but stand by and watch in despair as his beloved community disintegrates.

As with any epidemiologically mysterious threat, blame is thrown about like a weathered ball. The Italian kids, a slimy hot dog, the humble blow-fly, Horace the filthy local 'unfortunate', God and, from the outside, the Jews all become the subject of paranoid bile. When one of the playground children, Alan Michaels, dies, what is left of the community dies with him. Bucky eventually escapes to the Poconos to join his fiancee at the Indian Hill Summer Camp but is relentlessly down on himself for abandoning the Chancellor children in their time of greatest need. There is a brief lull and the novel drifts to frivolity, but soon enough polio strikes in the mountains too and Bucky suspects that he is the camp's Typhoid Mary, something for which he never forgives himself. Perhaps it is put best by the narrator Arnie Mesnikoff, one of the Chancellor playground kids and himself a polio victim, who observes towards the end of the novel that his former hero is "the very antithesis of the country's greatest prototype of the polio victim, FDR... disease not having led Bucky to triumph but to defeat."

It is difficult not to read Nemesis as a conversation of sorts with Camus's great masterwork, albeit through the more modern prisms of terrorism and economic collapse. Indeed, the two novels could sit comfortably as companion pieces, although Roth's is by far the more accessible treatment. It is also the more expansive, ruminating on the existential angst of an individual's potential extinguished as well as the wider panic that overcomes a community besieged by an inexplicable threat. The polio epidemic is the perfect vehicle for Roth to continue with the theme of mortality and all that flows therefrom that he has been exploring in his twilight years. But whereas Everyman was too caught up in a fear borne of the sudden realisation that the author might soon die, and The Humbling mired by cringeworthy sexual explorations, Nemesis finds Roth on the other side of his dark, intensely personal tunnel looking back at the demons he has overcome. Few authors could possibly hope to be writing novels of this quality and profundity so late in their careers.


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