Philip Roth's Extreme Novel
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives,” a point confounded by his own best work during the Depression decade. But in our time the great exception has been Philip Roth, who has creatively reinvented himself in every decade. As he entered his sixties in the 1990s, at a time when most writers would be slowing down, he produced half a dozen of his most ambitious books, from the affecting memoir Patrimony (1991) and the outrageously brilliant Sabbath’s Theater (1995) to the history-minded trilogy that began with American Pastoral (1997). In the past decade, his career took yet another unexpected turn with half a dozen short novels from The Dying Animal (2001), which could stand as the title of the whole series, to the current Nemesis, his fifth novel in five years. These books are unfailingly dark and grim yet they draw you right in. The rolling periods of his long, sinuous sentences, the uncanny sense of actually being there—in a world of real people, or simply in the knotty mind of the protagonist—can be amazing.
A writer’s late books, beset by flagging energy and invention, rarely add major works to the literary legacy. But they can be fascinating as they revisit earlier themes with fresh lenses: a pitiless awareness of aging, an encroaching sense of mortality. Roth’s recent novels are obsessed with death but also focus on all that can lead up to it, illness of every kind, waning physical powers, impotence, as well as also memory loss, loneliness, and depression. Sometimes these books are salted with anger at the young, simply for being young, having all that time ahead of them, but they also pulse with sexual attraction to the young, also for being young. Even the books set in the past, taking Roth back to the scenes of his own youth, push inexorably toward death. The hero of Indignation (2008), thrown out of college much like the one Roth attended, will die in Korea. Nemesis, which deals with a polio outbreak in Roth’s Newark in the summer of 1944, is saturated with death, the foreboding of death, and the bitter, pointless protest against it. Roth’s settling on polio as a subject is inspired—I can still recall the fears that haunted parents through the1940s and 1950s—yet his controlled and well-researched account of the epidemic raises troubling questions.
Roth’s protagonists have typically come in two stripes. There are the lecherous ones, narcissistic and offensive, who grab life by the horns, take as much as they can get, and deride those who are more timid or repressed, especially the family types hemmed in by conventional morality. (In The Dying Animal, the main character, Kepesh, who has lived according to his libidinal lights, mocks his troubled 42-year-old son for actually caring what other people think of him.) For these self-absorbed characters “old age is a shipwreck”—as De Gaulle said of Marshal Pétain—and the very thought of death robs life of meaning.
Roth’s trademark has always been to take things to extremes, to the breaking point. His voice, pitched like Kafka’s between humor and anguish, turned him into a man on fire.
But Roth’s books can have another kind of protagonist, fundamentally good or simply youthful and innocent, perhaps a devoted son (such as the writer himself in Patrimony) or a conscientious father, the product of centuries of moral discipline (like the Swede in American Pastoral). At his best Roth can combine these two strands. The wild comic energies of Portnoy’s Complaint, along with its psychological insight, are grounded not solely in Portnoy’s raging id but in all the trouble it brings him, its conflict with “strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses,” including a well-developed sense of guilt.
• Watch Tina Brown's Interview with Philip RothBucky Cantor, the superb athlete, playground director, and waterfront counselor of Nemesis, is a younger version of that Good Man, Swede Levov, and he’ll be punished for his goodness—or will punish himself—even more harshly than the Swede, whose daughter, as a wild young '60s radical, becomes his worst nightmare. Essentially an orphan—his father was a thief, his mother died in childbirth—Bucky has been raised by a caring grandmother and a grandfather whose life is a lesson in duty, honor, and fearless masculinity. At 23, Bucky is engaged to a woman he loves, with whom he has idyllic sex. Only his bad eyesight has kept him out of the war, much to his chagrin, and he brings the firm conviction of battle to a war on the home front that he cannot win, a war against a mysterious virus, against fear itself.
Toward his youthful charges, threatened by the spread of the disease, Bucky is a role model, even a hero, bringing physical grace and courage to everything he does. But when he feels that he may have brought the polio virus into their young lives, he turns his sense of duty on himself, first blaming God for bringing such misery into the world, then castigating himself for being its carrier. Later, when he himself falls ill, he simply opts out of his life, even after he manages a partial recovery. Deaf to the emotional pleas of his fiancée and the entreaties of her father, a doctor he warmly admires, Bucky insists that he can’t allow her to throw away her life on a “cripple,” even one she desperately loves. He feels he is “no longer man enough to be a husband and a father.” Now deeply bitter, he sees this renunciation as “his last opportunity to be a man of integrity.” Possessed by this high-minded motive, undone by his conscience, he tosses away his own life instead.
How credible is this? Would anyone really take such a high line, at his own expense? Despite its fatalistic title, which suggests divine retribution, Nemesis is a realistic novel, not a parable. Roth’s playful adventures with the contingency of postmodern narrative in The Counterlife and Operation Shylock are long behind him. Like American Pastoral and the books that followed, Nemesis is a meticulous recreation of the times. Its portrayal of polio, of athletic competition and summer camping, of Newark itself in 1944, spins out a tissue of Updikean detail, minutely researched, with upfront acknowledgment of Roth’s sources. But like so many realistic writers going back to Hardy, Norris, and Dreiser, Roth also has a vision, a thematic grid he imposes on the action. He cannot resist putting his thumb on the scales to ensure that things will go badly for his characters, not in spite of their goodness but because they are good, and because our world is indifferent to good and evil alike. Roth draws deliberate parallels between the war abroad and the death of these children at home. For Bucky, this means that God, if he exists, is cruel and life itself absurd. This stark outlook, so far from the comic turns of the earlier Roth, goes back to the existentialists who were in vogue when Roth was young but also much further back to the protesting and suffering hero of the Book of Job, on which Nemesis is a series of variations.
Despite the undoubted impact of this novel, this disturbing vision bends the story in an unlikely direction. When Bucky gives up on life and becomes a kind of recluse, it seems less the result of gnostic theology or an exacerbated ideal of manhood than of sheer depression. Many polio victims overcame physical disabilities to lead productive lives, not only FDR but writers like Wilfrid Sheed and Leonard Kriegel, who married, raised children, and wrote prolifically. Kriegel, exactly Roth’s age, once an avid athlete like Bucky Cantor, was stricken with polio the same summer of 1944. He went on to grapple with his experience in a series of arresting memoirs and meditations on manhood including The Long Walk Home, Falling Into Life, Of Men and Manhood, and Flying Solo. The narrator of Nemesis, one of Bucky’s young playground admirers, also surmounts polio to construct a life for himself. “You look like a contented man,” Bucky tells him when they meet again in 1971. But Roth invests little interest in this man except as a foil for Bucky and a vehicle for his story. He plays Nick Carraway to Bucky's Gatsby, but he’s not even identified until 40 pages from the end, and Roth gives him no narrative voice distinct from his own.
If Roth were a different writer, then this narrator, someone who didn’t give up, might have been at the center of his polio story, not Bucky. But Roth’s dark mood of the past decade put this out of the question. As he does with the stricken boys, Roth rubs in the harsh contrast between vigorous, hopeful creature Bucky once was and the living wreck he became, as deformed in mind as in body. The novel ends with a recollection of one of his great athletic feats, a virtuoso demonstration of throwing the javelin, which Roth turns into an exercise in bittersweet irony, a terrible might-have-been.
Roth’s trademark has always been to take things to extremes, to the breaking point. His voice, pitched like Kafka’s between humor and anguish, turned him into a man on fire. In Portnoy’s Complaint, The Anatomy Lesson, and Sabbath’s Theater, this fierce energy gave his work tremendous power. But in other works such as American Pastoral, with its far-fetched depiction of demented young terrorists, the same vivid excess led him into blatant distortion. Roth’s output—this is his 31st book in 50 years—remains one of the wonders of the literary world. But there was no way a “contented man,” a husband and father who managed against fearsome odds to achieve an ordinary life, would ever fill the bill as the protagonist of a Philip Roth novel.
Morris Dickstein’s latest book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression , has just come out in paperback from W. W. Norton. It won the 2010 Ambassador Book Award in American Studies from the English-Speaking Union and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.