Roth’s Enduring Commitment

Philip Roth, 1973


After dozens of novels, and after literary prizes and scandals, slumps and resurgences, and dramatic shifts in style, can the life’s work of Philip Roth be summed up? There is too much to cover, but it might help to begin at the end. Nemesis, Roth’s final novel, published in 2010 when Roth was 77, highlights an aspect of his work that has gone mostly unnoted in the many outstanding retrospectives and appraisals that have followed Roth’s death. In the novel, a polio epidemic strikes the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey in the summer of 1944. Bucky Cantor, a 23-year old playground director and gym teacher, nobly dedicates himself to consoling the parents of stricken children and to helping those children not stricken to continue to play ball as the disease and fear overtake Newark. To Weequahic’s children, Bucky represents both physical and moral strength. But when offered the opportunity to escape polio-stricken Newark, for a summer camp in the Poconos, Bucky surprises himself, and the reader, by taking it, guiltily leaving his grandmother and the children of Newark to fend without him. The rest of the novel explores the consequences of the epidemic and Bucky’s choice in the face of it.

On the surface, Nemesis includes little of what made Roth a celebrated or scandalous writer. Sex and Jewish-American identity play minor roles. Nemesis is not funny, and no character in it could be confused for the author. Though it mostly avoids these touchstones of Roth’s fiction, Nemesis is not really a departure. The doomed attempt to escape Newark for some bygone American paradise, for example, which looms in his 1996 masterpiece American Pastoral among other Roth works, is miniaturized in Bucky’s attempted escape from Newark for Camp Indian Hills in the Poconos. And three key works from the start of Roth’s career—each published in 1959—are updated to Roth’s late style in Nemesis. The class divide separating Bucky from his fiancée Marcia, the daughter of a doctor, gently echoes that of Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin in Goodbye Columbus. The arguments about God in Nemesis, as Bucky rages against the malevolent force that brought polio to the children of Newark, recast Oscar’s impish questionings of religious dogma in “Conversion of the Jews.” Finally, the obligation owed to one’s “people” (however defined), and the enduring guilt that comes with abandoning that felt obligation, figures in Nemesis as it does in “Defender of the Faith.”

Beyond these recurrences, and beyond the laughs, transgressions, and provocations for which Roth is justly famous and sometimes scorned, Nemesis reminds us of Roth’s extraordinary, enduring commitment to the novel itself. It reminds us, that is, what novels can and cannot reveal, the utter irreducibility of the stories they tell even when they appear, as Nemesis might, to be allegories or parables, signifiers for larger, abstract concerns. Encompassing large themes in a spare, direct style, Nemesis feels like an allegory, with the polio epidemic killing Jewish children representing maybe the Holocaust or war or death itself; with the classical allusions of the title and throughout lending a cosmic dimension to the choices Bucky Cantor makes and to his seeming powerlessness before the circumstances he confronts. But Nemesis might also be read as a meditation on our very human penchant for allegorizing, or for storytelling itself, for gathering sets of circumstances—real or imagined—into narratives and investing them, for better or worse, with meaning.

As in American Pastoral, everything in Nemesis is filtered through the consciousness of a character who narrates the story. This filtering was already an old novelist’s trick when Roth began publishing in the late-1950s. But Roth deploys it to unusually devastating effect, because he makes it so easy, and so tempting, for readers to forget they are reading a story narrated by (or possibly invented by) a character within the story. American Pastoral, for example, begins with Nathan Zuckerman, a first-person, Roth-like narrator, recounting some recent experiences before shifting, mid-paragraph and never to return, into the narrator’s invented, third-person, gripping account of Swede Levov’s downfall. By the end, a reader new to Roth might well have forgotten that Nathan exists, that he is the inventor of the story we have been reading.

Nemesis plays an even trickier game. At the start it appears to employ an omniscient storyteller, and it is only a third of the way through that we learn that the narrator is actually a character named Arnie Mesnikoff, one of the Newark children afflicted with polio in 1944. But this is all we are told at the time about Arnie, and the revelation generates a puzzle. Arnie offers information about Bucky—what he does and what he thinks, in Newark and in the summer camp—far beyond what he could plausibly have witnessed. How does Arnie know? Is he, like Nathan in American Pastoral, simply inventing?

Readers might wonder about this as they continue to read, or they might forget altogether about Arnie until he takes control of the novel’s final section, accounts for his knowledge of Bucky’s story (Bucky told him, 27 years later, after a chance encounter in Newark—not that different from Nathan’s encounter with Swede Levov at a Mets game, which sets American Pastoral in motion), and comments on Bucky’s choices. Bucky, Arnie learns, had sought to escape polio for paradise in the Poconos, but there was no escape. Polio followed him to Indian Hill Camp, afflicting several in the camp including a counselor he had befriended and Marcia’s sister. Bucky discovers that he is a carrier of the disease, and he decides, with no evidence, that he transmitted it to children in Newark and in the summer camp. Then he too is crippled by polio. Embittered, despising God and himself, he withdraws from the world, breaks off his engagement, and lives a solitary, unhappy life.

Nemesis seems to have a lesson it wants to teach its readers, about the power of luck, good or bad, to shape our outcomes: “Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance—the tyranny of contingency—is everything.” But it surely matters that this lesson is not delivered by a third-person narrator’s all-knowing, impersonal voice of wisdom, nor by the preeminent literary genius Philip Roth (however much it sounds like Roth). Instead, it is voiced by the fictional Arnie Mesnikoff of Weequahic, polio survivor and, we eventually learn, architect who specializes in designing accessible spaces for people with disabilities. As Claudia Roth Pierpont reports in Roth Unbound, Roth labored over Nemesis, writing 13 drafts, and that the idea of a plague victim as narrator came to him “only as he went along.” Arnie is not essential to Bucky’s life, but he is essential to Nemesis, to the one and only telling of Bucky’s story.

It matters, too, that Arnie’s effort to draw lessons from Bucky’s outcome ends in confusion. Bucky, Arnie first reflects, “paid a high price for assigning the gravest meaning to his story, one that, intensifying over time, perniciously magnified his misfortune.” Arnie inveighs against Bucky’s pessimistic, guilt-laden interpretation of what Arnie believes was essentially bad luck. But then Arnie emphasizes Bucky’s powerless to do anything but misinterpret his situation: “The guilt in someone like Bucky may seem absurd but, in fact, is unavoidable. Such a person is condemned.” Character was destiny: being who he was, Bucky could not help but blame himself and blame God. Finally, Arnie reverses himself yet again with a series of “maybes”: “Maybe Bucky wasn’t mistaken. Maybe he wasn’t deluded…. Maybe his assertions weren’t exaggerated and he hadn’t drawn the wrong conclusions.” Maybe God is, as Arnie memorably suggests that Bucky believes, a “sick fuck and an evil genius.”

The language is Roth’s through and through, but neither Roth nor the novel offers an answer to Arnie’s catalog of maybes. Was Bucky right or wrong? All any of us have, in place of answers, is the story itself, the sequence of events, the choices and their consequences, artfully told to reveal, among so many other things, that we cannot know more. In Nemesis, there is no answer beyond the blunt fact of polio’s cruelty and the all too human choices Bucky makes in the face of it. This much, Nemesis shows us with painful clarity. It is something novels do well: convey the comedy, absurdity, or small-scale tragedy (a word Nemesis uses often) of our confrontations with chance and circumstance in whatever forms they take, of our efforts to find happiness or fulfillment or just a place in the world. From 1959 to 2010, Roth, bearing the influences of Kafka and Chekhov, among others, demonstrated this as he showed a vision of the world to us, and in 2018, on the occasion of his death, we are reminded again.

One of the appeals of novel-writing, for Roth, was the chance to engage, through stories, in arguments about chance, fate, the nature of the self, sex, politics, and modernity. In I Married a Communist, Nathan Zuckerman describes a formative intellectual experience: “I felt in communion with a quarrel about life that mattered, the glorious battle that I had been looking for since I’d turned fourteen.” Roth worked for decades to show us not just that the issues his novels explored mattered but also that novels mattered, as reports on experience and more, as opportunities to provoke, as sources of pleasure and insight. As chance and circumstance would have it, the novel, as an institution, no longer occupies the privileged position in American cultural life that it did when Roth came on the scene. Few novelists are likely to occupy center stage in American culture as Roth once did. But the novel does endure, and brilliant novelists continue to follow in Roth’s wake. It will honor Philip Roth’s memory to not stop reading novels, learning from them, quarreling with them.


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