Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nemesis by Philip Roth

There is a classic air to Philip Roth's "Nemesis." The sun is evoked like an object of veneration. Children worship momentarily a man who hurls a javelin in a display of manly athletic power. Stories of ancient rites and ancient men are told around campfires to wild-eyed, bewildered listeners.

The style of "Nemesis" is similar to the other books in this ongoing series, which a Roth works list at the book's beginning helpfully describes as a cycle entitled "Nemeses: Short Novels." Like "The Humbling," "Desperation," and "Everyman," we are presented a male main character who faces an emasculating life or death trauma. "Nemesis" is written with long, complex sentences that wind through characters and situations back upon themselves. The story is told briskly, in less than 300 pages.

"Nemesis" follows Bucky Cantor, a Jewish gym teacher in New Jersey in the year of 1944, when life and death dramas are played out daily in Europe and the Pacific. Bucky, a 4-F, was denied glory on the battlefield because of his eyesight, and he struggles against his vision as do the other protagonists of Roth's late short novels - their aspiration forever frustrated by reality. Bucky, however, cannot escape the feeling that his misfortunes are his own fault. In this case, the problem is a polio epidemic in the Jewish neighborhood, and as the children Bucky watches over begin to succumb to disease, and death, he feels a growing sense of responsibility.

An obvious conclusion is that Roth is returning to the New Jersey of his childhood for this particular story. But one is conscious of the backdrop - World War II - and the ongoing liquidation of Europe's Jews in the concentration camps. Instead of fighting that menace, Bucky instead fights fear that begins to grip his community as families and children begin looking for the secret sources of the growing contagion, which robs the limbs of power and the lungs of breath. When one frantic parent asks, "Our Jewish children are our riches...Why is it attacking our beautiful Jewish children?" one has the Holocaust in miniature. A grief stricken father says for the whole planet, "The meaninglessness of it! A terrible disease drops from the sky and somebody is dead overnight. A child, no less!"

Which brings us to the other feature of "Nemesis," which is the feeling that stirs in Bucky that what follows him may not be a horror of his own making but a supernatural one. As Bucky begins to wonder at the purpose of innocent children suddenly being robbed of life, he begins to suspect that God is behind it all. This feeling grows in him, as tragedy piles on top of tragedy, both at home among his children and on the battlefield with his friends:

"Bucky's conception of God, as I thought I understood it, was of an omnipotent being whose nature and purpose was to be adduced not from doubtful biblical evidence but from irrefutable historical proof, gleaned during a lifetime passed on this planet in the middle of the twentieth century. His conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one God-head, as in Christianity, but of two" - a sadistic soul and an evil genius.

It's interesting that Roth gives his character a sentiment C.S. Lewis expressed in "A Grief Observed" - that God can sometimes feel like a cosmic vivisectionist, that His power is not perfectly displayed in His grace, but instead in His ability to torture creation. Roth, who does not believe in an afterlife, God, Christ, or otherwise, creates a character who feels the presence of God in the negative, and presumes a God intimately involved in our day-to-day lives, for the purposes of destruction, like a child who destroys the sand castle he has spent the last two hours creating. This proof is not comforting, for how does the created hope to last against the Creator? The feeling that one strives against a Being who will not bless him even if he should grab hold of Him dogs Bucky and haunts the reader.

In mid-story, Bucky flees the playground to the summer camp where his girlfriend works. He feels secure in the mountains, and enjoys the love of the woman he intends to marry. His girl sings "I'll Be Seeing You" to him, a song that he resurrects later in life, the story of a lover who is reminded of the beloved in the familiar places of life that they have shared. But one wonders if this love song isn't instead a more menacing reminder that God is always watching. It falls to the book's final third act, where we see our faceless narrator revealed as one of Bucky's grown playground children, to allow events to reveal Bucky as he existed before and as these fears are realized, in his mind. Whether they are, in fact, so, is yet one more question for the reader to navigate.

"Nemesis" of course, was the Greek goddess of retribution. But the word also means an antagonist who brings punishment, or the cause of inevitable downfall. Whatever Roth's intent, he has created a universe of possibility in the chaos that forms, like a contagion, in the air of summer camps and summer romances where danger is thought to be distant but secrets itself behind our desperate longings, and in a negative faith that offers no consolation.

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