Nemesis, Philip Roth

Structure and Prose in Roth’s Nemesis

8/7 – p. 82

The GOD Question:

One boy dies, two boys die, four more are ill and then the polio epidemic becomes real in this enclave of Jewish families. Bucky Cantor attempts reasoning, but he thwarts his own goodness with questions and fears about God. He’s a  reflective sort.

8/7 — I am liking this very much. In some ways I am feeling a little bit of the agenda, the metaphor of plague, Nazis, Americans, freedom, fear, etc, but the message(s) are carefully wrapped, intentionally accessible, but not required.

Structure in Nemesis:

I am so sorry that I looked at some reviews for this book. I had questioned the identity and honesty of the narrator and now, knowing the “surprise” am having trouble reconciling the text. Who knows what and when did they know it.

Roth’s Prose:

Fabulous writing, more like what I recall from Roth in his previous works. There is a section I must reproduce here. It is abundant with meaning, and plainly, simply beautifully written:

“His nose was his most distinctive feature: curved like a scimitar at the top, but bent flat at the tip and with the bone of the bridge cut like a diamond — in short, a nose out of a folktale, the sort of sizable, convoluted, intricately turned nose that, for many centuries, confronted though they have been by every imaginable hardship, the Jews had never stopped making.”

I need to think about this little excerpt. More later. (8/7/12)

8/9/12:  Okay, I was wrong… way wrong. And I am unhappy about it… not because I was wrong, but because the story was so pointless. Yes, pointless. It was ultimately, though not initially, a story of perseverance, reflection, hope, sadness, tragedy and the possibility of redemption. And my estimation about the depth of Roth’s writing was wrong. Not that he can’t, but that he just won’t anymore. Spare to the point of starvation, it is a reduced prose, rendered without sweetness or fat. It is a documentary of a life lived and a life regretted.

Was Roth using Bucky Cantor to excoriate those of us who would run from catastrophe when given the chance? Did he want us to know that running, choosing not to do “the right thing” is choosing to do the “wrong thing” and that God will punish us profoundly? The pointlessness was in the story’s failure to set us right after all the wrong. Bucky Cantor is not remarkable. He is Everyman, another pointless late-in-life Roth novel. He’s just a poor sap, whose gender, religion, culture and nationality do nothing individually or collectively to save him from himself. Nemesis? Who/what was the nemesis? Was Bucky really the “invisible arrow?” If he was, it makes him God, and in Bucky’s reflections, God was flawed, so then… blah, blah, blah,  image and likeness and all that.

I wanted Mr. Cantor to be not without flaw, not above humanity, but I wanted this singer of the times of the epidemic to be a “man.” His father was a thief, his mother died giving birth to him. His grandparents were perfect surrogates; Bucky C should have had some testosterone about him. He was a weak arrow, tossed about by sexual drives (aren’t we all), by fear of the plague of polio (as we would all be), and given to guilt for being healthy.

Some God… he makes a decision based on selfish motivations and then he too is sick. Who knows if he was the carrier or infected later? Who knows if his debilitation was a gift from an angry God or a teaching God? Who cares?

Juxtaposed with Arnie Mesnikoff, one of the playground children who contracted the disease as well as the narrator of Bucky’s story.

Mr. Cantor has thrown away his life, but polio was not the nemesis. Bucky was not the nemesis. The nemesis was in his soul. A powerful, athletic and intelligent man, he took unearned beatings without a fight. However he contracted it, Bucky Cantor gave up his life to it. That makes him (and probably most people) not God-like, but human-like.

My complaint about the book is its uselessness, pointlessness. Why did I spend time and money to read this book? Because Philip Roth wrote it and I had higher hopes. In the face of his recent spare novels, I should have known better. Still this book did not harm me, and some of the prose was wonderful and reminiscent of Roth’s healthier, more substantial, more indulgent style. There are sections which are pure music, valuable passages offering reflections on life and death, living and dying.

I won’t put this on my “not-recommended” list, but to recommend it would require many qualifiers.

I may add thoughts after more contemplation. I can’t quite finalize my thoughts here yet. 8/9/12

Here is a link to a terrific review of this book: —

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