Nemesis by Philip Roth

I have wanted to join a book group for a while now, as, amazingly enough, I really like talking about books! I recently heard about a group that meets in a local bookshop, so I plucked up my courage and went along to a meeting, which I found very interesting and friendly. The book we had to read was Philip Roth’s latest novel and winner of the Booker prize, Nemesis. Although I wasn’t expecting to like it, I was really gripped by this novel and it gave me a lot to think about even when I found it strange or didn’t completely agree with it.

The book is set in Newark, New Jersey in 1944 and the plot centres on a epidemic of polio, which I knew hardly anything about previously. I found it disturbing to read about the fear that swept through the city and the possibility that any of the children playing outside during the long hot summer could be infected and die within days, or end up paralysed and having to breathe inside an iron lung. One early scene describes a group of Italian teenagers arriving at a playground in Newark, where Jewish children are playing. The teenagers taunt the children by threatening to spread polio and spitting all over the ground. When polio begins to infect the children from the playground one by one, the Italians are blamed, but in other parts of the city, anti-semitism is rife and the Jews are blamed for bringing the plague on the city. One of the ideas the book explores is the effect that fear like this has on a city and how it can bring out hatred and prejudice. On the other hand, a crisis situation can also create heroes, like the supervisor of the Newark playground, Eugene Cantor, nicknamed ‘Bucky’, who is the book’s central character.

Nemesis is very concerned with exploring moral and religious questions, through a character study of the unusually self-sacrificing Mr Cantor. (He is referred to as ‘Mr Cantor’ throughout most of the book, and when, towards the end, we discover who the narrator of the whole novel is, this makes sense). At the centre of the novel is the dilemma that confronts Bucky. He makes a decision, experiences a fateful moment of cowardice (or self-preservation, or love of existence and of his future wife, depending on how you look at it) and can never forgive himself. Maybe his problem is the inability to live with his decision once he has made it. I think the novel describes feelings of guilt and fear in a powerful way.

I felt that the novel also explores the ideals of the generation who fought during World War II. Bucky missed out on fighting during the war because of his bad eyesight, and instead of feeling relieved, he wishes he could have joined his two best friends in the army. This escape from hardship and danger seems to create a great sense of shame in him, and his need to compensate with his own brand of heroism and an inflexible moral code is perhaps what leads to his downfall. However, it’s not obvious what the reader is meant to think of Bucky. Early on he is presented as a decent and brave person, almost heroic. Then, gradually, the narrator emerges as a character in his own right, and undermines his previous idealised view of Mr Cantor by harshly criticising Bucky’s outlook on life and the way in which he has misguidedly punished himself for his terrible mistake and ruined his own life. I think the book doesn’t resolve the tension and allows both views to exist together, pitting the narrator, who represents a different generation, a more pragmatic outlook, against the idealistic Bucky.

At times, I didn’t like the way that relationships between men and women were portrayed, especially Bucky and his fiancee Marcia. Although I know the female characters aren’t necessarily meant to be representative, I felt that they were often seen as weak, hysterical and attempting to persuade men away from their duty. I changed my opinion somewhat towards the end, when Bucky’s ideals were brought crashing down, and the question of who was right and wrong became more complex. Marcia then emerges as a strong character who believes in happiness, as well as a naive and privileged girl who can’t understand Bucky’s moral code. However, I was still bothered by the sense that Roth sees relationships between men as more important than male-female relationships. The duty that Bucky feels towards the boys on the playground and the admiration he feels towards Marcia’s implausibly perfect father seem to outweigh anything he feels towards Marcia herself. Bucky even decides to propose to Marcia after sitting on the porch with her father eating peaches and hearing the benefit of his wisdom. It is clear that part of Bucky’s motivation for marrying Marcia is to be part of her warm and loving family, to have a strong father figure after the loss of his own father, and I found this lessened my sympathy for him.

Despite my reservations, I enjoyed this book as there is so much to discuss and explore. In the second half of the novel, the setting moves to a beautiful, unspoilt camp in the countryside, whose purpose seems to be to promote healthy living and athleticism, and there is a huge contrast between this idyll and the plague-ridden city. But are the people in the camp living a good life or are they in denial? I found the last section of the book and the relationship between Bucky and the narrator the most interesting, as it really draws out the differences between them and reveals the terrible consequences of Bucky’s way of thinking.

 

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