In recent years Philip Roth’s novels – Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling – have been called minor works by reviewers, often in contrast with such earlier masterpieces as The Human Stain and American Pastoral.
These two books, reviewers recognize, encapsulated their era, finding in the lives of eastern American Jewish characters experiences that allowed Roth to interpret the political and social shifts of the post-World War II era.
His new novel, Nemesis (Hamish Hamilton), is receiving familiar treatment as a minor work – even J.M. Coetzee, a serious and sensitive reader of Roth’s work, took this approach in a recent review essay in the New York Review of Books.
If this way of categorizing Roth’s later work was appropriate for Indignation or The Humbling, it is not for Nemesis, which is a cunningly constructed book, a narrative puzzle offering both suspense and the kind of lyrical nostalgia for decades past that Roth has proved himself a master at.
The novel takes place in the sweltering summer of 1944, as the neighbourhoods of Newark watch an outbreak of polio jump unpredictably from one quarter to the next. Weequahic, the section populated by children of Polish Jewish immigrants, is at first unscathed, but in the course of the novel, the disease moves inexorably and mysteriously among the children of Weeqauhic’s Jewish families.
Roth is canny in his treatment of the disease. Earlier books have offered readers detailed essays on glove-making, on boxing and acting, but Nemesis is not a source book for understanding polio. Instead, it portrays the events of 1944 much as they were experienced, in a haze of paranoia, panic and ignorance. No satisfactory prevention existed, since the causes of polio were not known.
The mystery associated with a disease that can paralyze and kill children leads Roth’s characters to muse about the meaning of ill fortune. His lead character is Bucky Cantor, a young and beloved teacher of children, who is spending the plague summer overseeing a playground full of neighbourhood kids. Once the disease has killed one of these children, Bucky wonders “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?”
The novel moves in its second half to the “splendid” Poconos. There Bucky, taking the opportunity to escape the epidemic haunting the city by hiring on at a summer camp, feels he has abandoned his responsibility to his playground charges. It is at Indian Hill camp where the narrative takes a surprising turn. In the New York Review of Books, Coetzee allows that “a reviewer will try not to spoil the impact of a book by giving away its proper secrets,” and then adds that he sees “no way of exploring Nemesis further without breaking this rule.”
Roth’s narrative twists need not be revealed here in order to convey his novel’s writerly mastery and it existential punch. The narrative voice in Nemesis is unlike any in Roth’s previous work, and so, its way of mining the American past is not comparable to works like The Human Stain and American Pastoral. It includes visceral portraits of a time of great fear; a description of the countryside, which is reminiscent of other great works that set the pastoral alongside urban catastrophe; and a quietly funny portrait of a Jewish summer camp whose philosophy and outdoor rituals follow its director’s belief in “the red man as the great prophet of the outdoor life.” There is nothing slight or undeveloped about the way Roth concludes his story.
In Nemesis, as well as in the other so-called minor books, one senses, again and again, a tone and point of view reminiscent of Roth’s breakthrough book, Goodbye, Columbus. It is the romance of an innocent time of life – of heightened, transformative experience – that Nemesis explores. The way such romance is demolished by adult experience is one of Roth’s enduring themes.
Norman Ravvin’s new novel is called The Joyful Child. He is chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.