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Guilt and Mortality in Philip Roth’s Nemesis

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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.