NEW YORK — Perhaps one of the keys to aging as a writer, Philip Roth is saying, is how one engages with calamity. Certainly, that’s an issue in his latest novel, “Nemesis” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 280 pp., $26), which involves a polio epidemic in the Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, N.J., in the summer of 1944.
“I was making a list of subjects I had lived through that I’ve never written about,” the author explains, sitting in a small conference room at the Manhattan offices of his publisher, long fingers steepled before him, voice smooth and understated as if worn down a little bit by time. “There were quite a few, and when I thought polio, I began to wonder how to treat it. I was born in 1933, so I lived through the polio scare for many years.”
At 77, Roth has spent much of his career considering various menaces, of both the individual and the collective sort. His 2004 novel “The Plot Against America” posits an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election, ushering in an oddly nativist form of fascism; the American trilogy (“American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist,” “The Human Stain”) identifies a more elusive danger: the strident sanctimony that, since at least the Red scare of the 1950s, has been a dominant thread in the fabric of our public life.
“Nemesis” has more than a little in common with such efforts, both because of its Newark setting — Newark is to Roth what Dublin is to Joyce, a landscape to which his imagination has consistently returned since the publication of his first book, “Goodbye, Columbus,” in 1959 — and also because of the atmosphere of barely controlled panic, of “vile accusation and intemperate hatred,” that runs throughout the book. The story of Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old playground director who is forced to choose between the kids under his care and his devotion to the young woman he wants to marry, becomes a nearly biblical inquiry into conscience and responsibility, as well as the ongoing and irresolvable conflict between humanity and God.
“Doesn’t God have a conscience?” Bucky wonders as he struggles to deal with the sweep of the disease across his community. “Where’s His responsibility?” The moment is reminiscent of the scene in “The Human Stain” in which, as he confronts the “ceaseless perishing ... (t)he stupendous decimation that is death,” Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, rages: “What an idea! What maniac conceived it?”
In Roth’s view, of course, this has everything to do with writing. “I have no argument with God,” he says, “because I don’t believe in God.” Nonetheless, it’s hard to read “Nemesis” without a sense of if not theology then theodicy, the question of, as Roth puts it, “how God’s goodness can exist in the face of all these catastrophes.” To Bucky, this becomes the substance of a moral crisis; to Roth, it is yet another iteration of the themes that mark his late novels, going back to 2006’s “Everyman.”
These are dark books, concerned with tragic, even last things: the death of the protagonist in “Everyman”; the series of “small, ridiculous” mistakes that prove disastrous for the narrator of “Indignation” (2008); the loss of acuity that afflicts the aging actor at the center of “The Humbling” (2009). Taken together, they form a suite of sorts — “Nemeses: Short Novels,” as Roth has taken to calling them, “a sequence of thinking on my part about cataclysm.” Yet here again, Roth raises a compelling set of distinctions, between the writer and the character, between the author and his work. For all his interest in collapse or ruination, he is refreshingly lighthearted about it; at one point, he jokes, “I’m on a cataclysm kick.” And for all that we may read the books as autobiographical — an older writer putting his own concerns or worries into his fiction — Roth is adamant that what he’s about is, as it has always been, the art of storytelling, that to read him otherwise is to misunderstand the way literature works.
That’s a complicated argument, considering that so many of Roth’s books have appropriated the substance of his life as a starting point. It’s not just Newark, where he was born and raised, but also his struggle with Jewish middle-class conformity, as well as his fascination with a certain unfettered sexuality, as embodied in novels such as “Sabbath’s Theater” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The latter book, in particular — a rabid confession from the psychotherapist’s couch that made Roth a superstar when it appeared in 1969 — has long been regarded as a thinly veiled personal statement, an illusion Roth encouraged when he created Zuckerman, a writer who becomes infamous for a novel, “Carnovsky,” which has something of the same effect.
And yet, if Roth is willing to acknowledge the connection, he is insistent that such readings “fail to understand the nature of imagination, which is what the writer has. People think that when a character is angry, the writer is angry. But it’s not as simple as that. The writer is delighted to have found the character’s anger. Or his obstinacy. Or his unpredictability. It isn’t that I’m unpredictable and obstinate. I’m just delighted that he is.”
Perhaps the most useful way to think about it, Roth continues, is as a performance, in which he requires certain details, certain props, with which to work. One element feeds another, until the story reveals itself. “I don’t know very much,” he says about how he begins a novel. “I write my way into my knowledge. Then, if I’m lucky, I get a break. That’s why it’s so important to get started. Because however awful starting is — and it is absolutely awful — when you get into it, when you’ve got 10 pages, which may take two weeks, then you can begin to build.” In the case of “Nemesis,” it was Bucky’s girlfriend who provided the breakthrough, with her desire to keep him safe.
At other times, one novel has functioned as the fulcrum for another, shifting his entire body of work. This is what happened with “The Ghost Writer” (1979) and “The Counterlife” (1986), both of which represent significant turning points. “‘The Counterlife’ especially,” Roth recalls, “jettisoned me into ‘Operation Shylock’ and ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’ and then I was cooking on all burners and stuff was just coming out of me.”
By his own admission, Roth isn’t writing like that anymore; as he says, “I don’t have that kind of energy now.” Yet with “Nemesis,” as with “Everyman” and “Indignation” before it, he is talking through himself to himself, across the arc of his career. Among the most striking aspects of the novel is how much it reflects books such as “Goodbye, Columbus” and “The Plot Against America,” in not just narrative but theme too. Like the former, it involves a working-class boy in love with both an upper-middle-class girl and the seeming safety of her family. Like the latter, it evokes a fictional disaster — there was no polio epidemic in Newark in 1944, any more than there was a Lindbergh presidency — as a cautionary measurement, an expression of how fortunate we were.
“I don’t know what causes me to want to imagine some hell that didn’t happen,” Roth says, his voice quietly expressive, “but I think in a way it’s a tribute to our luck.” As for the echoes, he suggests: “It’s bound to happen, because things will come back disguised or in new forms. You only have your dozen love letters to write, you know?”