“Why do you hurt your servant?” asked Moses of Yahweh. “How have I made your heart so heavy you push the burden of this people on me?” (Numbers 11:11)
Philip Roth isn’t an overrated writer (although there’s no way he deserves a Nobel Prize in Literature in a world where Patricia Highsmith, William Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick didn’t get them), but his reputation rests on the wrong books. The “American trilogy” (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain) are long on ranting and short on plot, really short stories padded out by Roth’s anger on various aspects of American history: “not so much a novel plotted in the familiar manner as a sustained linking of highly charged rhetorical flourishes” is Roth’s description of Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine but more effective as self-criticism. American Pastoral won the Pulitzer (“American” is right there in the title so you know it’s important), The Human Stain got the first film adaptation, but I Married a Communist is the most underrated of the three, because it takes Roth’s anger and the education of his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman as its true subject. (“That should be your next book. Angry Jews since World War II,” Zuckerman’s mentor tells him.) The Plot Against America impressed a lot of people (hey, look at the title again) and it’s become sadly more relevant since its publication, but it struck me as neither broad enough in historical scope nor intimate enough in storytelling to really land. (We Roth fans are a contentious bunch of motherfuckers.) And of course there are many other Roth books, spanning Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) to Exit Ghost (2007), which could be put together in a massive omnibus volume: My Dick: a History.
Towards the end of his writing career, though, Roth went in a different direction, about the same time and in the same way as Elliott Carter’s last music or Thomas Pynchon’s recent novels. He stripped down his complex language and reflections (something that had started with The Plot Against America) and wrote four short novels, each about the length of Heart of Darkness, each published in a large typeface in books about the size of a big hand, each with almost abstract titles: Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, Nemesis. With that last book, published in 2010, Roth declared his career as a writer to be done, and he did something that Don deLillo notes that novelists almost never get to do: he finished with his very best book. Nemesis takes so many of Roth’s themes–the history of Newark, New Jersey, the challenge of Jewish identity in America, male sexuality, and under all of it, a moral wrestling that goes back to the Torah, or maybe before–and compresses it into an elegant and brutal story, elegantly, brutally told, something with the force of a rabbinic Aggadah.
The bulk of Nemesis is past action, set in Newark (Roth’s hometown) in the summer of 1944 as the polio epidemic there crests. The protagonist, Bucky Cantor, is twenty-three years old and kept out of the war by weak eyes, something that weighs on him throughout. He works as a playground director, sheltering children from heatstroke, showing them how to throw the javelin, and giving them hygienic advice in the increasingly desperate hope that polio won’t get them. (The continual toll of children taking sick or dying as well as news of men getting killed in action overseas goes all through this section.) He has a girlfriend (later fiancée), Marcia Steinberg, off at a camp in the Pocono mountains, and he accepts an offer to go work there, in safety as a swim coach, to open the second section of the novel. If the first section (“Equatorial Newark”) is the Plague, the second section (“Indian Hill”) is the Promised Land, which crashes to an end as first one of the campers (Donald Kaplow, the one closest to Bucky), gets polio, and then Bucky does. The last section tracks the consequences, as Bucky recovers and rejects Martha, from the remove of decades–the present action of Nemesis happens in 1971.
Roth has always been good at rendering the moral conflicts of his characters, and this is a particularly intense one. He makes us feel Bucky’s desire to protect the children of his community, and their affection for them (the narrator is one of those children); we can also feel Bucky’s need to prove himself, as a strong young man not off fighting the war. All of these things get heightened by the status of being Jewish in wartime America, one more version of Roth’s lifelong theme and history of the relation of Jewish identity and American identity. To Roth’s great credit, though, he makes the other morality just as powerful: the safety of the Poconos and the love of Marcia aren’t selfish things, they’re a responsibility too, and Bucky is honestly caught between them; in the words of another great wartime novel, “there’s nothing negative about running away to save my life.”
It’s a clear drama with no right choices, only wrong ones, and Roth tells the story in perhaps the clearest language of his career. No jumping around in time; no endlessly turning sentences here with loads of subordinate clauses; and if there paragraphs longer than a page, that’s only because these are darn small pages with darn big letters. Roth, an instinctively complex writer, simplifies his language as much as Norman Mailer did in The Executioner’s Song and to the same effect: this is less a Philip Roth novel than a story that was always there, and he just happened to tell it. From the first sentence–specific, simple, and devastating (“The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived”)–onward, Roth tells this story in a way that’s reflective and straightforward all at once; these last novels are accessible in a way he’s never been before. Although Exit Ghost, three years before Nemesis, wasn’t his best novel or even a particularly good one, it was a necessary goodbye to Roth’s Zuckerman persona. Zuckerman could have narrated this novel but his literary compulsions and complexities would have taken away from the real subjects here: Bucky, God, and Newark.
Born and raised there, many of Roth’s books, particularly American Pastoral and The Plot Against America, track the specific geographical and ethical landscape of Newark as tightly as Saul Bellow did for Chicago in The Adventures of Augie March. Here, Roth gives us the neighborhoods and their boundaries (in the first action of Nemesis, a group of Italian boys cross into the Jewish neighborhood to spit on the sidewalk), the hallways in the houses, the pre-air-conditioned heat of the summer, and the class differences–Bucky’s visit to Marcia’s father’s house reveals a garden:
A private flower garden flourishing in a Newark backyard amazed him. His own cemented-over backyard was riven with cracks, and stretches of it were stripped of crumbling chunks that over the decades the neighborhood kids had pried loose for missiles to fling murderously at the alley cats or larkily at a passing car or in anger at one another.
Roth’s ability to compress ethnography and history into description goes all through Nemesis without ever calling attention to itself. (As someone who was in the Indian Guides as a kid, I can testify he gets the camp exactly and unobtrusively right.) At all points, it works as a narrative and as description, the voice of a native.
After The Counterlife, where Roth took the Zuckerman story and refracted it through many fictional and metafictional possible versions, he often used the structure of Heart of Darkness for his novels: the narrator listens to someone else narrating the story. Too often this was a device for Roth to sound off on whatever was bugging him about American life, but here he had both the discipline to not do that and this device turns into something effective. It’s a real jolt when, fairly late in the first section, “Three more boys had come down with polio–Leo Feinswog, Paul Lippmann, and me, Arnie Mesinkoff”: the first moment the narrator identifies himself and his part in the story. At this point, it makes the epidemic even more real; later and more importantly, Arnie becomes not just the listener but the real survivor of Nemesis, the one who didn’t destroy himself and can understand why Bucky did:
The guilt in someone like Bucky may seem absurd but, in fact, it is unavoidable. Such a person is condemned. Nothing he does matches the ideal in him. He never knows where his responsibility ends. He never trusts his limits because, saddled with a stern natural goodness that will not permit him to resign himself to the suffering of others, he will never guiltlessly acknowledge that he has any limits.
The double-recollection mode of Nemesis also helps with the characterization of Marcia. She comes across as impossibly pure and good (“I’m not complicated. Remember me? Remember what I said to you the night before I left camp in June? ‘We’ll do it perfectly.’ Well, we will. Nothing has changed that”) but we’re not reading her, we’re reading Arnie’s recording of Bucky’s recollection of her, and that hurts. What Roth gets across here is that Marcia was Bucky’s first love, really his only love, and although the incidents happened as we read them, she’s become idealized over the years. It’s the same insight that drives John Green in The Fault in Our Stars: the loss of never growing out of an idealized first love, and it’s worse that Bucky does it by choice, and has to live with it.
There are a lot of ruined lives in Roth’s later books, but there may be no other protagonist who destroys himself as painfully as Bucky. In his novels of the 90s and 00s, particularly the American trilogy, Roth presented men who couldn’t cope with an America that was changing; he charted a lot of history in long paragraphs to get a sense of the confusion his protagonists couldn’t handle. That has its power but it’s limiting, because it anchors the characters to a single moment in history. (This is why these works are and should be open to criticism now for their misogyny; these works can’t get past being tied to Roth either.) In Nemesis, he brings it all down to the single event of polio and the single act of Bucky rejecting Marcia. The earlier novels are those of a moment that has passed; Nemesis works as a record of its time but also as something far more enduring. It’s a historical work, but not a historically determined work, at its heart a fable of a good man in a time of war and plague, caught in a struggle with God:
When he’d completed the story of the final meeting with Marcia, I asked him, “How bitter does all this leave you?”
“God killed my mother in childbirth. God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more–including Marcia’s sister, including you, most likely. Including Donald Kaplow. He died in an iron lung at Stroudsberg Hospital in August 1944. How bitter should I be? You tell me.”
In the Torah, the oldest writing is usually attributed to an author called the Yahwist, a strain that goes through Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, finishing in a bit of Deuteronomy. (No Leviticus.) Harold Bloom, who can be full of shit with authors he doesn’t like, did his absolute best writing in his commentary on the Yahwist’s story: “[the Yahwist]’s men and women invented the kind of Hebrew humanism that is quite central to normative Judaism.” (Not just Roth, but all the authors quoted or referenced in this essay are Jewish.) Nemesis earns its greatest and most lasting power because it’s where Roth tells his most Yahwistic story: the servant who wants what God cannot give. His characters have raged against an unjust or ungiving world before, but it’s always been sublimated into rage against authority or social codes; perhaps Sabbath’s Theater is the closest Roth came to the purity of Nemesis.
Reading the Yahwist’s writing (translated by David Rosenberg in The Book of J) purged me of ever seeing God as just, kind or merciful. The “just” aspect was largely the invention of the Priestly authors, who codified God’s will into the Ten Commandments and the Book of Leviticus, neither of which are in the Yahwist’s work. Yahweh is the source of life, not goodness, and He can be impossibly demanding on His servants because of that, pushing them continually to their boundaries (the Yahwist often puns on the Hebrew ‘rr, “binding”/”boundary,”) perhaps never more so than with Moses, made to lead a difficult, squabbling people, and dying within sight of the land promised to them. This is the humanism Bloom caught and that Roth renders here: a humanism defined not, as in Christianity, by thanks to God but by a necessary struggle with God. Bucky takes his place in a genealogy of characters that go through Moses, Jacob, and Abram, probably all the way back to Hava/Eve.
Another author, maybe an author more steeped in Christian tradition, would not have been able to make Bucky’s dilemma so agonizingly balanced; the temptation to make duty and self-sacrifice the highest good would be too great. Bucky, Roth’s Moses, turns away from his people (in a Shakespearean twist, the playgrounds close just after he leaves: “So if he’d remained in Newark a few days longer, he would never have had to quit”) and more importantly and destructively, turns away from the Promised Land, rejecting Marcia and the life he could have had with her. This is a theme that appears in so much of late Roth, the man who destroys himself for someone else’s goodness; he’s dealt with it before, but he usually transformed into it the conflict between living life to the fullest and living by the rules of others. (It’s worth noting that “the rules of others” often get represented by women in Roth–think of the ugly portrayal of Delphine Roux in The Human Stain; here he flips that–Bucky’s fullest life would have been with Marcia.)
Here, though, by simplifying the language and the history to the point where it’s no more than necessary, and no less than elegant, he makes that theme truly ancient, truly Yahwistic; what happens in Nemesis doesn’t happen because of the turmoil of the 1960s or rising fascism or political correctness, 1990s style. It comes down to Bucky’s choices against a set of values that have endured for something like 3000 years. (It’s close to another parable by another great Jewish author, Kafka’s “Before the Law” in The Trial.) He sins not against goodness, not against that later invention of the Priestly author, but against Yahweh’s sole defining characteristic, the thing Yahweh breathed into us in the act of Creation (Genesis 2:7): Bucky denies himself not his life but his vitality, choosing to punish himself according to his own code of the good rather than live according to what is. His hubris was to mistake his code for God’s; the Nemesis of the title isn’t polio, but the crushing, soul-destroying loneliness that he condemned himself to, and that Arnie escapes. The story Roth tells here belongs to a pre-Christian, almost pre-Jewish morality; it’s a sermon based on an idea that keeps getting forgotten, and keeps getting remembered: the first duty of the living is to live.