Philip Roth's 'Nemesis'

The Case Against God and Man

by Robert Loss

11 October 2010


Like Polio, Query Is Contagious

As Marcia’s twin sisters, also safe at the camp, fawn over Bucky, and as he takes under his wing Donald Kaplow, an athlete as gifted as himself, and as the campers parade in their insensitive-to-modern-tastes Indian costumes, the reader can be forgiven for urging on the entrance of Nemesis. We are a cruel lot, thirsting for conflict the way a butterfly lands on Bucky’s shoulder and drinks from his sweat. Roth injects this pastoral getaway with as much foreshadowing and ominous music as he can—Bucky’s childhood friend dies in France, his grandmother reports, and more playground children are succumbing to polio—and we find ourselves aligned with both Bucky and his angry God, impatient for and fearful of the story’s inevitable turn. Something must happen.

It does. Before Bucky leaves for Indian Hill, he reasons that “He just had to get through three more days at the playground without contracting polio”, and whether or not he managed to do this will haunt Bucky the rest of his life. The teenage Donald Kaplow is suddenly sick, whisked away, and Bucky wonders if he has, in fact, brought the Weequahic polio with him to Indian Hill. Is he himself the nemesis, not unlike those white, European settlers who spread disease through the native population centuries before? He willingly accompanies a doctor to get tested; more cases bloom; the camp is shut down. Nemesis is swift, and she is severe.

Arnie Mesnikoff is here to offer Roth’s point of view, the argument against the case against God (or Greek goddesses). For the atheist, anger at God is like anger at Santa Claus, and the search for meaning in divine action is misplaced from the beginning. In a passage echoing the thoughts of young, fictional Philip Roth in The Plot Against America, Arnie says comfortably to himself:

Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance—the tyranny of contingency—is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.

Like polio, though, query is contagious. Arnie is not above doubt. Maybe, he thinks, Bucky did make a fatal error when he “abandoned the Chancellor kids”, and just maybe—that awful word—all the judgment Bucky suffered is legitimate. We’re left to wonder why it is that, like Nathan Zuckerman before him, Arnie has chosen to tell this story.

It’s in this brilliant final section where Roth unleashes his apprehension of human behavior and his ability to put meaningful oppositions realistically into the mouths of his characters. Some will find the ending a contrivance, perhaps, but it is moreso the hidden agenda from page one. Twice the elliptical Arnie refers to Bucky’s “biography”, and Nemesis is that biography, a genre reserved usually for those Great Men of History without whom our history is said to be incomplete. Roth is fully aware of this; Bucky, in fact, began the story as a broken hero without our knowledge.

Roth has been immensely prolific this past decade, to our great benefit. However, his quick pace may be diluting the uniqueness of his descriptions and his dialogue. In Nemesis, rarely does the writing surprise the reader; on his way to the Poconos, Bucky sees “horses and cows in the fields” and “a farmer on a tractor”, and earlier in the book, Roth writes that a “rat rose on its hind legs and gnashed its frightening teeth, deploying itself to spring”. These are phrases just about any decent writer could compose. The dialogue between Bucky and Marcia is sometimes wooden, to say nothing of the speeches Bucky delivers to the boys on the playground.

A defense of this can rely on the nature of point of view. Bucky’s perceptions are middling, his mannerisms stoic; he does not see many complications in other people, only in himself. Count this as another risk taken by Roth—that we will dislike and, worse, become bored with Bucky. Mickey Sabbath, David Kepesh: these men may revolt us, but in the way of great fiction, we cannot stop reading their words. Roth’s devotion has always been to his characters, and has never cared too much about dazzling the reader with surfaces, with wordplay and flashy language unless it serves the occasion. 

Besides, for every concern above, a rebuttal: Marcia’s emergence as a richer character late in the novel; the detailed, soul-crushing portrait of the neighborhood’s mentally challenged drifter whose mittens, attached by safety pins, eternally go unused; or “the booming black nighttime Atlantic”; or when Yushy, the proprietor of a Weequahic hot dog shop says, to Bucky, “It’s dead around here”, and Bucky snaps, “It’s hot.”  Then there is Roth’s use of dialogue exchanges compressed into a single, long paragraph, which he normally employs, it seems, to quickly get through necessary but informational passages. Early in Nemesis, however, the technique unnervingly enacts the panic of Newark’s citizens and the pressure with which they’re squeezing the life out of our hero. 

Roth is one of the last American moralists, unafraid to plumb the depths of what the rest of us nervously refer to as our souls—or, if you like, the messy war which goes on between what we want, what we are capable of, what we know, and what we believe. Nemesis, along with Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), and last year’s The Humbling, from what Roth recently called “Nemeses: Short Novels”, a quartet concerning personal disaster.

Crisis, aging, disease, futility, obstinance, regret, history—these have been Roth’s great subjects for the past six years. What makes Roth splendid and important is the way his fierce intellect dwells on these topics while abiding by the realistic, even mundane demands of fictional prose. Any grand statement is an utterly human performance, despite Roth’s authority with the written word.  Religion, even the religion of atheism, is secondary to the chaotic struggle of existence, of mere being, whether in times of crisis or in our idylls (which are, in Roth novels, times between crises).

These systems of belief are, in Nemesis, as in so many of his other works, the surfaces upon which we gaze: the asphalt of a playground, a lake under moonlight, its diving board, the porch of a house earned by the goodness of a future father-in-law, the cold tile of a hospital floor. How can we be surprised when these turn out to be mirrors, when our case against God swells into the case against ourselves?

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