TSL Book Review: Nemesis…Philip Roth’s Latest Tackles War, Disease and Guilt

The protagonist in Philip Roth’s latest novel, Nemesis, seems to become the American anti-hero: without giving too much away, instead of fighting in the war, he runs away, he gives up. But during at least one part of the novel, Mr. Cantor is the hero for all—including his fiancée and the young boys he teaches.

Nemesis follows in the vein of Roth’s three latest short novels, asking questions about the kinds of choices that can change one’s life in enormous ways and how one deals when faced with one of these choices.

The novel takes place during a polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in the 1940s. Bucky Cantor is a 23-year-old playground supervisor who, although just recently hired, holds the respect of his students and is devoted to them. Later, Cantor’s fiancée is introduced and the story moves to Indian Hill, the summer camp at which she is working, a place seemingly isolated from all the tragedy striking in Newark.

Guilt factors into the novel early. Cantor has been rejected by the army because of his weak eyes, and now he is one of the few young men left in the neighborhood. The struggle of his two best friends fighting in France serves as a parallel to his decision whether to join or abandon the town in its own war against polio. As the students he watches over at the playground slowly become infected and even die from the disease, Cantor begins to suspect himself of being the contaminating agent. It is here that the questions arise: does he stay in Newark, providing support and an anchor for the children? Or does he take a new job at his fiancée’s summer camp, where he can hope to be safe from the disease? And if he leaves, will he be taking polio with him?

The central theme of the novel is the juxtaposition of the “two wars”: World War II and the war against polio. Yet Roth also weaves in themes concerning the character of God (Cantor, along with the other characters in the neighborhood, is Jewish), the conflict between duty and desire, and the tenuous nature of human strength. “He seemed to us invincible,” the narrator declares in the final line of the novel.

In a twisted way, in comparison to the young boys who died from polio and those who died at war, Cantor seems to fit this description. But the novel ponders the meaning of the word itself, asking whether “invincible” means simple survival, or whether it means something more: an ability to rise above the negative circumstances that shape a life forever. For all of Roth’s awards (Pulitzer Prize, National Medal of Arts, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Fiction, National Book Award, etc.), I was not very impressed with the technical writing style of Nemesis. It’s hard to really get into the story until about halfway through the novel––despite its gut-wrenching themes, somehow the plot failed to grab me and draw me in.

Other, more professional critics have hailed Roth’s ability to accurately describe the terror polio caused and the helplessness of parents, teachers, and children when faced with the disease. However, in my experience, Roth’s depictions seem flat. The words are there—the mother shrieking in the face of Cantor, hysterical after the death of her son—but they are not deeply felt, as Roth describes one incident after another with the same cool and collected voice. In fact, the most moving moments of the novel have nothing to do with polio. Roth’s most powerful passages are his simplest: Cantor and his fiancée’s first moment alone during the summer or Cantor eating a peach, about to ask for his girlfriend’s father’s blessing. Nemesis is a fast read at just 280 pages, and even if it was not all I expected from my first time reading Roth’s work, the occasional beauty of the prose and haunting questions the novel raises make it worth checking out.

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