Philip Roth: Nemesis (2010)


There have been a few reviews of Philip Roth books recently (on Babbling Books here and here and on Book Around the Corner here) and because I commented on the one or the other posts saying that I didn’t like him, Leroy suggested I read Nemesis. The premise of the book sounded very interesting and so I finally read it. While I cannot say I’m a convert, I can still say that this is a very fine book and one that’s topical, well written and thought-provoking too.

The first thing I noticed, was that you can feel that this is an assured writer. You can feel it for many reasons. The most important one was that the writing seemed so effortless. It’s free of artificiality, flows nicely, contains many well captured scenes and the way it is told is quite wonderful. The book is told by a first person narrator, who appears only very briefly and then disappears and blends into the background of the story he tells. It isn’t his story and we will have to wait almost until the end of the book to find out who tells it and why. This is artful, and that’s why Nemesis is a great example that it’s worth to finish books because some really need all the pages to become a whole and to fully reveal their meaning.

It’s the summer of 1944. A scorching summer in Newark, New Jersey. Bucky Cantor is a young man, a physical education teacher who just graduated and starts his first job as a playground supervisor in the Jewish neighbourhood of Newark. It’s a summer job to which he has been looking forward to and which he executes with a lot of energy, enthusiasm and passion. Bucky is a small but strong and muscular man and if he wasn’t so terribly short-sighted he would be off fighting against the Germans like his best buddies Jake and Dave.

Bucky lives with his grandmother. His mother died in childbirth, his father, a thief, disappeared and the beloved grandfather has just passed away. But Bucky is by no means lonely as he has a fiancé, Marcia,  who comes from a rich Jewish family who accepts him and loves him just as much as Marcia herself does. Things look promising for Bucky if it wasn’t for a nasty, evil God, as Bucky sees it,  who decides to send the plague, in form of a polio epidemic, on Newark and the Jewish neighbourhood in which Bucky lives and works.This is 11 years before the vaccine is invented and Polio is a devastating disease. It’s not entirely clear how you contract it and while some forms are mild, most are not only crippling but can lead to death.

Roth does a great job at describing the panic, sadness, shock and horror that follow the outbreak of this epidemic. It has an absolutely devastating effect on the community of Newark and underlying racial and social tensions break out with a horrifying force.

While Nemesis tells the story of a disaster which strikes a whole community it also tells one man’s story and how he copes with disaster.

What I found amazing is the way Roth showed that in the end it’s far less important what befalls us but what really counts is how we deal with it. I can’t reveal too much or the book would be spoilt, let’s just say, that when guilt and blame come into the equation a bad situation can turn into a nightmare.

Disaster and how we cope with it isn’t the only theme in the novel. There are others like loss, regret and guilt which are all equally well illustrated.

Nemesis is a book which takes a while to develop its full aroma. I could imagine that the one or the other reader would find it a bit slow at first but it’s worth reading until  the end. While I’m still no Philip Roth enthusiast, I really liked this book and think I might pick up another of his novels some day.

54 thoughts on “Philip Roth: Nemesis (2010)

  1. I haven’t read this Roth novel, but have read others which I liked. I particularly recommend his early “Goodbye Columbus.”

    Your review reminds me of the years of the polio epidemics. They used to announce the numbers every day on the radio during the summer — how many were sick, how many had died.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, I’m not familiar with that title. I still have one of his books on my piles, Sabbath’s Theater but had a feeling it might not be for me after all.
      Before reading this book I wasn’t aware of how awful Polio was or that there were epidemics of such proportions. We must be grateful that we cannot contract this anymore in Europe or the US.
      I think he captured the panic very well. The anger and feelings of helplessness.

  2. I have not read this one but as you know I do like Roth. I am glad that you liked this. My favorite Roth Novel is American Pastoral.

    It is interesting how almost everything Roth writes involves Jewish men living in post War New Jersey or the vicinity. I find that he works wonders with this semi – autobiographical canvess that uses again and again.

    Did you know that Roth has declared that Nemesis will be his last book and that he is forever done with writing fiction? Below is a link to a story about his announcement.

    • Some of the heroes must be very similar to him, I’m sure. I suppose I feel quite far away from most of them and could never really relate. Bucky felt very Catholic to me. His feelings of guilt especially. On the other hand the God is the God of the Old Testament.
      I’ve read it omewhere that he will not write anymore. It’s interesting that he chose to stop after this one.

  3. I just couldn’t face this one after the humbling which I felt was roth’s worst book of the ob=nes of his cannon I ve read I probably will that said read it at some point especially after he said he is done writing I do feel this one is near classic roth in some ways ,all the best stu

    • I’ve only read The Human Stain and while I thought it was very well written, I liked it less than this.
      It’s very well written. I guess I’ll stay away from The Humbling.

    • I guess you’re right.
      I have read somewhere that people who don’t normally like him still like his shorter books.
      I thought the topic was interesting, the threta of apandemic is something that can flare up and will make people do weird things.

  4. The only Roth I have read was The Plot Against America – which I enjoyed very much, but I don’t know if it is typical of his work. I thought it was good, but not good enough to make me want to rush out and read the rest of his books!

    • The Plot Against America was my first Roth and was great enough to make me read more by him, save for the ending, which seemed rushed and I fear failed to take into consideration all the implications of such a change in historical events.

      From the description here, Nemesis seems a bit like it, just replace the Nazis with polio.

      Roth is one of my favourite living novelists, alongside Kundera and Vargas Llosa. I can tell you The Plot Against America is typical of his post-’90s work, when he took a more serious turn and wrote the excellent American trilogy.

      For my part I’m a bigger fan of his irreverent earlier period – Portnoy’s Complaint, Our Gang, The Great American Novel, Zuckerman Unbound. The man makes me laugh like few writers do. Operation Shylock is a comical masterpiece.

      • Thanks for all these suggestions.
        I guess I writer who has been writing for such a long time and produced quite a large body of work, would have a few different phases.
        I’m tempted to try The Plot Against America and Goodbye Columbus now.
        He didn’t srike me as very comical so far but maybe that was a trademark of the earlier novels.
        These are three very different writers, Roth, Kundera and Vargas LLosa. Interesting combination.

    • I felt a bit like that about The Human Stain and about this. They don’t make me want to rush and pick up all of his books. It’s due to the main charcaters mostly. I thought Bucky was a bit different, so it worked and it’s an interesting topic.

  5. I tried one Roth and didn’t like it but Emma has persuaded me to try another. It’s unfortunate when the the first book you try by an author doesn’t impress you because it’s very difficult to be persuaded to try a second.

  6. Nice review, Caroline. I haven’t read a Philip Roth book yet. I liked very much what you said about reading a book till the end to appreciate its full meaning. The theme of the book looks quite interesting and powerful. Polio must have been devastating during those times. I sometimes get confused between Philip Roth and Joseph Roth. I know I shouldn’t, but unfortunately I do.

    • Thanks, Vishy.
      If you had seen the first title of this post! I accidentally wrote “Joseph”. 🙂 A very different Roth, one I love.
      I had no idea Polio was this horrible or could kill people. Cripple them, yes but not kill and not so many at the same time.
      It must have felt like the plague.

  7. I’m glad you decided to try him again and thanks for the link.
    I haven’t read this one, it’s supposed to be his last one.

    I think you’d like The Plot Against America. Powerful. I love this writer because he manages to mix deep thinking and mundane life. He brings Newark back to life the way Woody Allen can show the past. (Like in Radio Days)

    • I might have to have a look at The Plot Against America after all.
      I’m sure you would like this one but maybe find it a bit thin. Not because it’s short but from what I remember of The Human Stain he is usually more complex than that.
      Still it’s a book that is well worth reading.

  8. Roth’s work is one of the big gaping holes in my reading–I have a few of his books but I have yet to read anything by him. This sounds really good, so I will have to watch for it. As I am going to try hard next year to read my own books maybe it will be the year I finally read him. And as you say some books really need time to develop and so it is best to try and stick them out–something else I am going to try and do more of next year. Which other books have you read?

    • I’ve only read The Human Stain but then I watched the movie right after and now the memory is blurred.
      I think this is really worth reading. One of the best places to start with him, I suppose.
      OH I’d like to sign up for the TBR challenge as well.

      • I’ve decided I am definitely going to read from my stacks next year (at least for the first part of the year), but I am not sure I will join any formal challenge–there are several out there–will have to think about it, but I’ve already cancelled all my library requests. We’ll see how it goes–I am excited to spend more time exploring my own forgotten bookshelves.

        • I should do the same. I placed a few extra orders this year which isn’t a good sign. It means I have withdrawal symptoms before I even started. 🙂 I did well in the last couple of months though. I bought far less.

  9. I read Portnoy’s Complaint and didn’t like it at all, but I did enjoy Goodbye Columbus. (The latter is also a decent film with Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin.)
    I am interested in the polio epidemic. Supposedly, people couldn’t even go to swimming pools for fear of contracting the disease. FDR was crippled by it, but I don’t know of anyone else famous who contracted polio.

    • Yes, exactly FDR is mentioned. I’m not sure if there were other famous people.
      I can remember from my childhood a few older people who were limping and my mother told me it was polio.
      We were dragged quite a few times to the doctor for the vaccine.The fear must have been horrible.
      Another vote for Goodbye Columbus. 🙂

  10. I’ve never read Roth, but this sounds like an intriguing book. I think it would be really interesting to read about how an epidemic like polio affects both society and individuals. Nice review!

    • Thanks Leah. I think he did a good job at showing this. Bucky’s reactions are extreme but given his story, it’s understandable.
      If you haven’t read him, I think this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

    • Sticky is a word that goes very well with Roth, I find.
      I’m with you, I can enjoy some of his writing but I still doubt I will ever turn into a real fan. But Nemesis is a good book and I’ve read that the one or the other crtic who didn’t like him before was converted due to this book.

  11. I wanted to say to anyone who wants to try Philip Roth: don’t start with Portnoy’s Complaint. As much as I enjoyed the book, I don’t think it’s a good place to start a relationship with Roth’s talent.

  12. I haven’t read anything by him, but I hear his name mentioned a lot. This one sounds interesting and I’m intrigued by the narrator. Maybe I’ll give it a go. BTW, I made good progress with Great Expectations last night. Maybe I will finish it before Christmas. Maybe 🙂

  13. Hurray! Glad you tried it and glad you liked it Caroline.

    I sometimes wonder if his reputation is somewhat over-stated, but I have liked the few I’ve read to varying degrees and I want to try some of his others – the early Zuckerman books, Goodbye Columbus and The Great American Novel specifically.

    I agree with your thoughts about the novel. I think what’s so impressive is how compact it is, yet how powerful. There’s something very easy about the writing, due to how in control Roth is. I can imagine it being treated as an object lesson by younger writers, yet it must be an incredibly difficult effect to achieve.

    • I’m really glad that you recommended it. It really is compact and it’s a pleasure to read a book by an autho who is this assured. I could imagine too that this is taught and courses. I paid special attention to the scenes because I saw it mentioned somewhere that they were particularly accomplished in this book and it’s true.
      For him it’s probably very easy, but for beginning writers it’s very difficult.
      At the same time I agree that his reputation is a bit over-stated.
      I need to get to Goodbye Colombus too.

  14. I saw this author’s book just few our ago…but not of the same title.

    The book sounds great but a slow begining book often ends up unfinish because I get bored easily.

    But I really enjoy reading your review.

    • Thanks, Novroz. I think you might like this although it’s a bit slow because it is very well written. It’s actually not so much that it’s slow but that we don’t know where it’s going for a long time. Why is the nearrator only in the story one little moment and then we forget about him.
      I think it’s an interesting topic. I remember when I went to China while there was still the bird flu threat ansd how there were people in the underground cleaning all the buttons a everything, ticket machines, elevator buttons, many wore masks…

  15. I read that some time ago and didn’t get round to writing about it. I found it an impressive book but not one that made me love it. The Human Stain is my favorite Roth book, but you have written about this one so well that I wish I had made more of it at the time.

    • Thanks, Tom. I liked The Human Stain far less. I could relate better to this story and to Bucky. I think it would make a great book club choice. I find it’s one of his more discreet books, if that makes sense. It has something very quiet and sad.

  16. I’m another fan of The Human Stain, but I remember that you are not so much. I haven’t read another, though, because I get the feeling I wouldn’t like all of them and should choose carefully. He is a great stylist, though.

    • Yes, he certainly is a great stylist but I like you, I think I have to choose his books well.
      THe HUman Stain like Ford’s Independence Day were two books I sort of liked while reading but forgot the minute i closed them.

  17. Roth is on my list of writers I want to explore this year. I’ve read Zuckerman Bound which consists of 4 shorter stories about Nathan Zuckerman. I really liked it. And he had me believing that Anne Frank had survived … so I’m eagerly looking forward to reading more by him.


Thanks for commenting, I love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.