Philip Roth was an evil literary influence on me. I don’t write like him, but love his sarcasm, irony and well-crafted dispatches from the battles of the sexes, the very stuff that unsettles Leah Hager Cohen, author of a favorable New York Times review of Nemesis, Roth’s latest novel. Ms. Cohen until recently despised Roth’s works as written “for boys.” She likes Nemesis partly because it’s without his usual “bluster.” Instead Nemesis contains a sweet love story. Hah! Roth as fodder for genteel, well-mannered book club ladies and feminist writing instructors at Holy Cross who normally loathe male humor and anger and mixes thereof?
Several wars do happen in Nemesis, though: World War II, always lurking in the background and begging for comparisons; nasty fights between Jews and Italians and other goyim; and, most importantly, the war against polio and the struggles that rage within Bucky Cantor, Roth’s irony-proof protagonist who works as a playground director. Will Bucky forsake the Jewish children of the Weequahic neighbor in Newark, New Jersey, if he instead retreats to the rustic camp where his infatuated girlfriend works?
In the end Bucky is his own nemesis in ways far scarier than polio alone could be. I won’t spoil the plot for you but will just say that as a writer of twisty fiction Roth is once again his old, deceitful self, devoid of scruples, exactly the way I like him.
Whether you’re a long-time Roth fan or a skeptic with an open mind like Ms. Cohen’s, you’ll probably find Nemesis to be worth your time, especially with all that Roth has packed into a mere 56,000 words. Now will someone tell me when Roth will win the Nobel Prize? This brilliant and unrepentant curmudgeon is 77 now, and although he’d probably hate my rank sentimentality here, it would be fitting for the judges to honor him while he’s still alive.
Roth on e-books: Check out Reuters’ interview with Roth on the “decline” of the novel. In some ways Roth is his own nemesis, with his contempt for e-books, which will probably be the dominant medium for novels in another two decades, if not before. I myself have problems with E—for example, the Amazon-encouraged fixation on first chapters and on immediate gratification, as opposed to ultimate pleasure as a reader (the sexual and romantic parallels are irresistible).
Still, if Roth wants novel-reading to remain at least a somewhat popular past-time, he’d do well to consider the upsides such as easier availability of a wide variety of titles. I read Nemesis on a Kindle 3 and even the committed the barbaric act of using the text to speech capability on the novel while I was out for a walk. To Roth, I might well be a full-fledged villain.
Detail: The Weequahic-focused polio epidemic is a fictitious calamity like the building collapse in The Solomon Scandals.