Philip Roth Doesn’t Feel Like Telling Nemesis

Leon Neyfakh | October 4, 2010

Philip Roth NemesisJust as his new book is getting ready to end, Philip Roth provides the following description of its main character:

“He was largely a humorless person, articulate enough but with barely a trace of wit, who never in his life had spoken satirically or with irony, who rarely cracked a joke or spoke in jest.”

Quite a reveal! If only he’d come out with it a little earlier, we could have all saved some time. Were it not so on the money: judging from his depiction in Nemesis, the latest in a series of once-a-year trifles by Philip Roth, Bucky Cantor is a tiresome dullard whose mind seems incapable of producing amusing thoughts. Evidently his creator knew that, which makes you wonder why he decided to put him at the center of this novel.

It’s a shame, because Nemesis has a totally compelling plot surrounding the 1944 Polio epidemic in Newark. When the epidemic hits, Bucky is a 23-year-old kid who has taken a summer job as a playground director after getting rejected from the army for his poor eyesight. Over the course of the book, he suffers for his inability to do anything to protect the boys under his jurisdiction from infection, and watches them drop like flies as fear grips his neighborhood.

But the book is written in a style that is so wooden and so unmotivated — just like last year’s The Humbling and 2008’s Indignation — that it sounds like you’re listening to a story being told by someone who doesn’t really feel like telling it.

Here’s the conversation Bucky Cantor has with his grandmother after she calls him with the news of his best friend’s death.

“How? How?”
“In action in France.”
“I don’t believe it. He was indestructible. He was a brick wall. He was six feet three inches tall and two hundred and fifteen pounds. He was a powerhouse. He can’t be dead!”

Most of the book is like this: melodramatic and earnest to the point of not having a pulse. At one point Bucky is described eating a peach in the most disgusting way possible: “He bit into a delicious peach, a big and beautiful peach … he took his time eating it, savoring every sweet mouthful right down to the pit.” That’s what passes for attention to detail in Nemesis, in which descriptions of objects, feelings, and people are almost all vague and out-of-focus. When Bucky Cantor decides he hates God, it “[confuses] his emotions” and makes him “feel very strange.”

A sense of urgency is conjured during one 20-page stretch about three quarters into the book but it’s too little, too late. Philip Roth has become the Weezer of American literature.