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Nemesis

Philip Roth

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Nemesis by Philip Roth
© Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2010

In Nemesis, Philip Roth's thirty-first novel, a Jewish community in Newark is crippled with paranoia surrounding the polio outbreak during the summer of 1944. Yet, twenty-three year old Bucky Cantor, the summer's playground director for the Weequahic neighborhood, is afflicted with a different sort of inaction: unable to enlist due to his bad eyes, he's stuck at home with a heart teeming with unrequited love for his country. As a boy in the 1940s, Bucky has simple dreams: to be the best he can be for his country, his community, his best gal, and God. But as the menace of polio creeps into the picturesque landscape of Northern New Jersey, Bucky finds his ideals irrevocably menaced by this new strain of fear.
Fans of Roth will find Nemesis to be an exceptionally restrained novel. It's missing the biting masculinity that readers have grown to loathe or love, but more importantly Nemesis is missing the eloquent prose for which Roth is most celebrated. At times, this novel's simplicity feels more like a lack of ambition. Roth's recent "short novels" (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling) are all part of what are being hailed as Roth's "anti-Horatio Alger" phase; he's tackling Alger's simple, turn-of-the-century style but reversing the hope and optimism into realized disappointment. Often, this works with devastating clarity: in Nemesis, Roth cruelly breaks down this novel's everyman with the rapidly changing political (and medical) climate. Unfortunately, what this ultimately creates is not a memorable novel but simply a memorable situation.
The minimal developments of character and plot in Nemesis allow Roth a platform to discuss the complicated relationship Bucky Cantor has with his country and God. When Bucky's anxieties overwhelm him in Newark, he accepts a job at the Indian Hill summer camp where his girlfriend is a counselor. It's a perfectly healthy move for Bucky but he can't help but feel like a coward gone AWOL:

"...he had been given a war to fight, the war being waged on the battlefield of his playground, the war whose troops he had deserted for Marcia and the safety of Indian Hill. If he could not fight in Europe or the Pacific, he could at least have remained in Newark, fighting their fear of polio alongside his endangered boys."

Bucky's uncertainty of whether to place himself before his country spreads through him like a virus and infects all his emotional relationships. Early in Nemesis, Bucky questions God's role in the polio epidemic, wondering, "how could there be forgiveness - let alone hallelujahs - in the face of such lunatic cruelty?" His steadfast desire to be a good Jewish boy grows more and more tired as the novel progresses, and by the end of Nemesis his doubts metastasize into full-fledged anger:
"And where does God figure in this? Why does He set one person down in Nazi-occupied Europe with a rifle in his hands and the other in the Indian Hill dining lodge in front of a plate of macaroni and cheese? Why does He place one Weequahic child in polio-ridden Newark for the summer and another in the splendid sanctuary of the Poconos? For someone who had previous found in diligence and hard work the solution to all his problems, there was now much that was inexplicable to [Bucky] about why what happens, happens as it does."

The frustration Bucky feels towards his religion and patriotism is the philosophical core of Nemesis and really the only part of the book with any depth. The nostalgic simplicity of the novel is very well executed, but the book leans far too heavily on Bucky's inner conflicts for it to show the intellectual breadth that Roth is capable of. The contrast with today's America is worth some consideration (how certain freedoms are best realized without the involvement of politics and religion) but Roth doesn't stray from the polio scare enough to satisfactorily provide readers with anything to relate to. Nemesis is more of a statement than it is literature, and unfortunately one with questionable relevance today.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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