It is three years since I read and reviewed American Pastoral (with these afterthoughts). 'Nemesis' by Philip Roth has been on my library list for quite some time, and according to the New York Times will be his last novel. It seems strange to me that a man so patently consumed by writing should choose to stop, but then it is a good thing that he can recognise he has said everything he wishes to.
Nemesis takes place mainly towards the end of WW2 and follows the events surrounding an outbreak of polio and the character of Bucky Cantor who is a playground supervisor. The story is told partly in retrospect, as we discover at the end, with him relating the events much later in life to one of the children from the playground. We watch with Bucky as the epidemic takes hold and begins to cut a swathe through his community and the boys under his care. He is powerless to help and eventually gives in to his girlfriend Marcia's request that he join her at the summer camp where she is working. With easily anticipated inevitability the disease follows him to the camp and to his horror Bucky realises that he has carried it there with him. Bucky too succumbs to polio and is left broken both physically and mentally. He pushes Marcia away fearing her rejection of him and after a lengthy recovery returns to care for his ailing grandmother and a life of empty mediocrity.
Roth manages to combine some exquisite writing with deep understanding of the human condition. So much going on in this relatively short book, but a couple of quotes first. This is Bucky's observation of his grandmother:
"As for the face above the ruin of her neck, it was now a tightly drawn mesh of finely patterned wrinkles, grooves so minute they appeared so be the work of an implement far less crude than the truncheon of old age - an etching needle perhaps, or a lacemaker's tool, manipulated by a master craftsman to render her as ancient-looking a grandmother as any on earth." (p.123)
And at the camp a disorientated swarm of butterflies arrives as the boys are swimming:
"While he stood in the hot sun at the dock, watching the faces full of sunlight bobbing about in the water, one of the butterflies landed on Bucky and began to sip on his bare shoulder. Miraculous! Imbibing the minerals of his perspiration! Fantastic! Bucky remained motionless, observing the butterfly out of the corner of his eye until the thing levitated and was suddenly gone. ... what he did not tell them was that he was so astonished by the gorgeous butterfly's feeding on his flesh that when it flew off he allowed himself to half believe that this too must be an omen of bounteous days to come." (p.180-1)
This book seems to lack the political symbolism that abounds in American Pastoral and is much more personal. In fact the only strong character in the book is Bucky. There is much emphasis on physical prowess, Bucky values his highly and values it in the children too, and I was left wondering, as with 'Still Alice' a few weeks ago where her intellectual losses were emphasised, whether it is supposed to add poignancy in some way when the gifted athletes are struck down, maimed or killed by the disease. The story takes us through the gamut of his emotions and allows us to watch as his moral compass spins in all directions. His sense of who he is and what he wants to be is so disrupted by this force of nature over which he has no power. One minute he is determined to stick it out in Newark and support the children there through the epidemic and then abruptly he makes the decision to leave. He has an opportunity and runs away, and we read in all honesty his self-justification for this choice. He ties himself in knots and then just as quickly decides to return to his former job, even when he has listened to Marcia's plaintive description of her fears for his safety. Then the following day he changes his mind again and decides to stay, getting no particular comfort from the news that back in the city the playgrounds have been closed down anyway as a precaution. He thinks he has found this safe haven but within days it is destroyed and the realisation dawns on him that he is the cause of its destruction. Wracked with guilt and shame he refuses to see Marcia when he is recovering. Her father insists that he at least meet and talk to her but he rejects her pleas to still marry her. He is crippled far more by guilt than by the polio and a hatred of what has become of his once athletic body, he would rather hide than face up to it and make what he can of it. What the book said to me was what a bad thing patriarchy is for men: Bucky had this notion of who he was, what he ought to be, what his role was in society, to care and protect, to support a wife and family, to be physically strong, to be in control, and when polio took all that away he had nothing to replace it with, no notion of how to make a life that was not based on those things. Part of me pitied him, part of me felt angry at him for his lack of imagination. In a way there was again something of the loss of the American Dream about the story but at the same time it was also about the insignificance of the individual; Bucky agonises over his decisions and the impact of his choices but in reality they were negligible in the face of the enormity of the events. All in all a very interesting read, I am sure I will come back to Roth again, maybe in another three years.