Philip Roth’s recent novels have often gestured playfully towards the idea of a serene late style. Simon Axler in The Humbling (2009) broods on Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” speech from The Tempest; Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s most famous mask, sets a scene in Exit Ghost (2007) to Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs — music chosen “for the profundity that is achieved not by complexity but by clarity and simplicity … The composer drops all masks and, at the age of 82, stands before you naked. And you dissolve.” Do these references mean that Roth, who is now 77, is abjuring furious artifice for a sagelike calm? Of course not. Late Roth has more in common with the late Ibsen described in an essay by Edward Said: “An angry and disturbed artist who uses drama as an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before.” Said called this kind of style, which he found deeply interesting, a “deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against.”
Roth’s fifth novel in as many years comes with a reorganized Books by Philip Roth page. Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and The Humbling have been plucked from their old home under Other Books and assigned, along with Nemesis, to Nemeses: Short Novels. Perhaps these four books are now a quartet, to be published in single volume down the line. If so, they make a harsh and challenging one. Everyman, a stark, ferociously controlled account of the life and death of an anonymous New York ad man, with an emphasis on the death part, is difficult to fault. Indignation and The Humbling, on the other hand, are jaggedly assembled, red herring-littered books, held together mostly by Roth’s buttonholing intensity. “The omnipotence of caprice. The likelihood of reversal. Yes, the unpredictable reversal and its power,” a character rants in The Humbling. Individuals being destroyed by a cosmic caprice to which their errors of judgment are merely a garnish: This seems to be the tragic model in these two books.
Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, the central character in Nemesis, is another of these faintly struggling figures. He’s also an uncomplicated, relentlessly nice young man, so the reader knows that he’ll be destroyed with a special vehemence, which gives the long pileup of his admirable attributes an increasingly menacing quality. The first member of his family to go to college, he’s been exempted from the draft — it’s 1944 — on account of his poor eyesight, to his great regret. A natural athlete, devoted equally to civic well-being and the Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey, he teaches gym and serves as a playground director, in which capacity he’s kind, patient and revered by his students. And if that’s not enough, his girlfriend, Marcia, is beautiful, clever and just as nice.
The first half of this shortish novel introduces Bucky in the middle of a summer polio epidemic, a life-changing event before a vaccine was developed. Bucky is referred to here as “Mr Cantor,” indicating that the otherwise non-childlike narrator, who doesn’t show his face until later on, is remembering him partly from a child’s point of view. From this double perspective, we’re shown Mr Cantor taking his duties seriously as the children in his care begin to sicken and die and the epidemic tests the community’s cohesion. “Why don’t they use disinfectant? Disinfect everything,” distraught Jewish mothers cry out in the street. Elsewhere, there’s talk of blaming the Jews for the outbreak. In secret, Bucky begins to hold a malevolent God responsible; he also comes to see his job as his personal Second World War.