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Guilt and Mortality in Philip Roth’s Nemesis

More than death, whose physical treatment reached its apotheosis in Everyman, Nemesis is about guilt, the nagging guilt that can leave a person spiritually paralyzed for life.

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Guilt and Mortality in Philip Roth’s Nemesis

In literature, sometimes the modest gesture can be as satisfying as the grand; in other cases, lowered ambitions beget reduced achievement. Scaling down from his monumental triumphs of the 1990s (which reached their peak of accomplishment in 1995’s ecstatic dirty-old-man extravaganza Sabbath’s Theater, and their apex of ambition in his so-called American Trilogy), Philip Roth followed up his last full-length novel, 2004’s The Plot Against America, with a series of novella-length offerings which he’s dutifully turned out one per year. With the exception of 2007’s Exit Ghost, the ninth and presumably last novel featuring his alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth has retrospectively classed these short works, all of which evince a morbid fixation on mortality, as “Nemeses: Short Novels,” a heading whose name apes the title of the author’s latest book.

A decidedly mixed lot, these five short novels have included a near-masterpiece (Indignation) and a work of embarrassing aimlessness (Exit Ghost), while the inevitable narrowing of focus inherent in the abbreviated form has produced both the powerfully concentrated focus of Everyman and the slightness and easy cynicism of The Humbling. Nemesis, the author’s 31st book, falls somewhere in the middle of this group. Slightly longer than the others (excepting Exit Ghost) and more ambitious than all but Indignation, Roth’s latest takes up two of the author’s great themes (death and guilt) while ignoring the third (sex) almost entirely. In fact, more than death (whose physical treatment reached its apotheosis in Everyman), Nemesis is about guilt, the nagging guilt that can leave a person spiritually paralyzed for life.

Spiritual paralysis isn’t the only kind present in Nemesis. Set largely in Newark, New Jersey during the summer of 1944, the book charts the infiltration of mortality into the consciousness of youth through the twin threats of death that hang over the otherwise carefree play of the local children. The first is the ongoing European war among whose victims number the brothers of many of the kids who gather together for daily softball games on the playground; the second is a polio epidemic which disproportionately effects the Jewish Weequahic neighborhood where the book takes place, leading not only to literal paralysis and death among the quarter’s young residents, but a wave of panic which quickly takes on anti-Semitic overtones.

At the center of Weequahic’s young athletic life is Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old gym teacher who supervises the playground during the summer, and because of his poor vision, is declared unfit for the overseas conflict. A much beloved figure among the local boys (especially after standing up singlehandedly to a menacing gang of local Italians), Bucky is a man of modest intelligence who takes joy in the simple pleasures of helping kids with their baseball swing or spending time with his pretty fiancée. Poor but happy, this heretofore unreflective young man finds his world upended by both the war and the polio epidemic, and to his guilt at not being able to fight the Nazis is compounded a sense of responsibility for the infiltration of the virus among his young charges. Bucky, a man taught by the grandfather who raised him with the importance of accountability above all, responds to the baffling epidemic—the “war upon the children of Newark”—by turning his anger and frustration both inside, where it manifests as guilt, and externally, resulting in an increasingly hostile attitude toward the God whom he had previously viewed with indifference.

Cantor’s abrupt condemnation of the man upstairs is a jarring shift, and at first, the sudden insertion of scathing irreligiosities into the mouth of such a previously unflappable character seems a merely academic gesture. Rather than building organically out of the character, impious imprecations such as “the official lie that God is good” at first register as clumsy authorial interpolations, designed to allow Roth to explore in its simplest possible terms the question of theodicy, how to reconcile the existence of God with the evils of the world. But the more the epidemic mounts, the more death begins to seem an inevitability, and the more Cantor continues to blame both himself and God, the more credible becomes the character’s response. Especially when, after fleeing to the Poconos to take a job at a Native American-themed Jewish summer camp in the hopes of escaping not so much from the threat of personal contamination as the responsibility he places on himself for the infection of others, the epidemic follows him there, a reification of his personal sense of guilt.

But it’s not until the book’s final section, set some 27 years later, and in which Cantor’s debilitating God-cursing is juxtaposed by the rational atheism of the narrator (one of Cantor’s former charges who is almost entirely absent from the first two parts of the book), does the character come into clear focus. In this masterful final act, the narrator, Arnold Mesnikoff, exposes the book’s ultimate tragedy which turns out not to be polio or war, but an inherent flaw in the main character. “He has to convert tragedy into guilt,” reflects Mesnikoff of Cantor. “He looks desperately for a deeper cause… and finds the why either in God or in himself, or, mystically, mysteriously, in their dreadful joining together as the sole destroyer.”

For Mesnikoff, and one assumes, for Roth, the question of living is not one of blame (whether it’s placed on God or oneself or on a religious or ethnic group), but of how to exist in a world in which we will always have war or disease to contend with. It’s not that one shouldn’t reflect on the “why” (after all, isn’t that exactly what Roth is doing in this book?), it’s that to adopt a picture of God as “a sick fuck and an evil genius” is to cede agency for one’s life and to condemn oneself to a paralyzing self-pity.

For all his own reputation as a bit of a “sick fuck” and a purveyor of cheap sexual thrills, Roth was and is a deeply moral writer. Approaching his ninth decade on this planet and deeply aware of his own impending mortality, the author considers the state of man’s existence on Earth with a renewed clarity, and setting aside the cynical brutality of his previous novel, finds the ongoing human struggle very much worth the endeavor, even as—as revealed in the hysteria of the polio epidemic that Roth so vividly renders—it’s inevitably filled with fear, intolerance, and what can often feel like a divinely mandated sense of injustice.

Philip Roth’s Nemesis will be released on October 5 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To purchase it, click here.

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Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasn’t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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