This is my review of Nemesis by Philip Roth.
In my first experience of a Roth novel, I was hooked from the first page by the flow of crystal-clear prose, so unlike the muddy rivers I have been wading through recently. Despite the unappealing theme of a polio epidemic in US Newark during World War 2, and the certainty that the tale would end in tragedy, I was compelled to read to the end.
The plot is perhaps too slight for the length of the book (280 pages) and you may feel that points are rammed home long after the reader has “got the point”. There is also the somewhat awkward device of introducing one of the young polio victims in passing as “I”, only for him to reappear in the last chapter, and listen to Bucky Cantor’s story in enough detail to be able to relate the whole tale of the promising young athlete from “the wrong side of town” who becomes a PE teacher with an overdeveloped sense of duty and “honour”. This has been stimulated by the strict upbringing received from his grandfather, and the need to expiate the failings of his father, an embezzler who abandoned his family. Bucky is haunted by the fact that his friends are dying in active service from which poor eyesight has debarred him and feels unduly responsible when the young boys in his charge begin to die with alarming speed from polio.
The strength of the story lies partly in the analysis of the factors which may form an individual personality, and the minute exploration of human emotions – the grief over the loss of a young life with great potential, the overwhelming desire to escape from a dreadful situation, with the accompanying guilt one may feel over so doing – also the corrosive effects of an inability to compromise when things go wrong. Then there are the interesting historical and cultural facets. Now that we take polio vaccine for granted, it is salutary to be reminded of what it must have been like, having to endure the fear of catching the disease every summer, not knowing where or how it would strike, or how it could be avoided. We are reminded of the gulf between the experiences of the comfortably off and the underprivileged, together with the rampant anti-Jewish prejudice in 1940s America. Also, there is the whole issue of religion: if you accept without question the existence of God, how can such a deity permit the random suffering of a polio epidemic, or the pointless slaughter of a world war?
This is a bleak novel, but in writing so unflinchingly about how chance affects our lives, for good or ill, and in reaching a conclusion which can be seen in some unexpected way as positive, I think it helps us to accept our own realities.