Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nemesis by Philip Roth


Where I got the book: my own choice from the library.

I've only read one other book by Philip Roth, The Human Stain. And I wasn't crazy about it, although I thought the writing was superior. (And I guess a few other people thought so too, since it won a PEN/Faulkner Award.)

I liked Nemesis a whole lot more, even though I thought the novel was structurally flawed. Or is that genius, to build flaws deliberately into a novel and then get away with it? It's a fine line.

[SPOILER ALERT] Nemesis is set in Newark in the hot summer of 1944, specifically in the Jewish community in Weequahic. It begins in an expository style, explaining the origins of the polio epidemic of that year, before introducing the main character, Bucky Cantor. This young man, a superb athlete but barred from war service by poor eyesight, works as a playground supervisor and has a passion for helping children grow as athletes. He is a model citizen: brought up by his grandparents, he grew up working in their business and did well at school. He is small, tough, and respected, and his relationship with a doctor's daughter promises a rise in society.

But the polio epidemic hits Weequahic hard, and the playground is particularly badly affected. Children sicken and even die, and Bucky Cantor's faith in God is shaken as he tries to comfort the families and puzzle out why "his" children should be the victims of such a virulent strain. When he finally gives in to the temptation to leave it all behind and join his girlfriend at a camp in the mountains, Bucky's nemesis follows him and destroys his life.

This is a great story told mostly in a tight narrative style interspersed with dialogue. I loved the affectionate descriptions of the community and its people, and really got a sense of the suffering of the families. The writing is excellent: tight and compelling, it sketches scenes with great economy of detail but considerable power, and the dialogues and action are completely convincing.

Where the book fell down, for me, was the odd shock of discovering, about halfway into the book, that the narrator is not the anonymous "omniscient" so useful to novelists, but one of the polio victims; he tells Bucky's story (so that we see Bucky mostly as "Mr. Cantor") but really tells us almost nothing about his own part in it. The idea that he would have become friends with Bucky later in life and is now narrating what he has learned from him just doesn't strike true. I would have been OK with an omniscient narrator, but I find a second-hand narrative through a very minor character rather jarring.

The second thing I did not like was precisely the account of Bucky later in life, when he has turned his back on his former love and all that connected him with the playground. The embittered invalid is a familiar enough trope, but the way this section of the novel is sandwiched between the actual story and a final description of Bucky in his glory days (which strikes me as an attempt to balance out the present-day section) doesn't work for me. Bucky's anger against God is explored in this section, but I think it could have been worked more satisfactorily into the main narrative given Roth's great ability with the pen.

But I could be wrong. Maybe the flaws are deliberate attempts to break the rhythm of the narrative and shock the reader out of complacency. If they are, then I respect them. My overall impression is still of a powerful piece of writing that is well worth reading, and for that reason I'm giving Nemesis an "excellent" rating.

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