Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, January 14, 2011

Philip Roth, _Nemesis_

According to the "Books by Philip Roth" list in the front matter of Nemesis, his recent short novels Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now Nemesis constitute a group with its own name: ""Nemeses: Short Novels." Works for me. In each book, the main character is pursued and brought down by an implacable antagonist, furthermore an antagonist harbored within, a character quirk, an ambition, a weakness, a disease.

We all carry our own antagonist with us, it's true, some hamartia or other, if only in the shape of our own mortality, ticking away, its due date known only to itself, but certain to arrive.

The mortality ticking away in all of us dominates all of Roth's recent work, explicably enough: besides the four "Nemeses" novels, death looms in the last "Kepesh" novel, The Dying Animal, and the last "Zuckerman" novel, Exit Ghost.

Actually, the recent Roth book Nemesis most reminds me of is The Plot Against America. Perhaps because both are set in the mid-1940s, during World War II, but more because both are about fear and the ways fear undoes communities. (Tim Parks, in his review of Nemesis, mentions that the leitmotif of all the recent Roth short novels is "dread.") In Plot, the fear-plague is rooted in anti-semitism, in Nemesis, in a polio epidemic, but in both cases the evil we hope to purge in order to restore goodness, decency, and stability is always already us. The relevance of both novels to their own moment, the Bush II/Tea Party era with its fear of Muslims, immigrants, gay marriage, what have you, could not be plainer.

As for the novel as a novel -- another gem. What can I say? For me, he can do no wrong. The protagonist. Bucky Cantor, has a low cognitive wattage for a Roth protagonist -- the lowest since Ira Ringold, a.k.a "Iron Rinn," in I Married a Communist -- but there's enough to him to make his tragedy resonate. I'm nevertheless grateful for the contrasting perspective provided by the novel's narrator, Arnie Mesnikoff, in the final chapter, hinting that Bucky's tragedy need not have been as tragic as he insisted on making it.

What an amazing writer this guy is. And utterly sui generis.

The "about the author" note concludes by mentioning that Roth is the only living author published in the Library of America series, and then mentions, "The last of nine volumes is scheduled for publication in 2013." What the...? Does Roth know when he will finish his last novel? Does he know when he will die? (It's impossible to imagine him being alive and not writing novels.) How does he know his collected works will be complete by 2013?

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