Four Questions About 'Nemesis' Answered

Igor Webb's Full Address to Philip Roth the Day of Roth's Man Booker Prize Announcement

By Igor Webb

Published May 25, 2011.
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I’ve organized my talk around four questions:

1) How does “Nemesis” fit into the body of Philip Roth’s work?

Roth has gone a long way toward answering this question. On the page preceding the title page of “Nemesis,” he lays out a neat Linnaean classification of his many novels. At the top are listed the Zuckerman books, beginning with his great novella “The Ghost Writer” and ending with “The Human Stain” and “Exit Ghost.” Toward the bottom is a new grouping, now titled Nemeses, including “Everyman,” “The Humbling,” and, of course, “Nemesis.” There’s a kind of reversal of thematic focus in Roth’s classification system as you go from the top to the bottom: at the top are the books about the frequently extremely funny quarrel between the second and the first generations, books about choice and radical autonomy in the everything-goes US of A; but starting with “American Pastoral,” increasingly you come across books about living out what you don’t and can’t choose. Roth emphasizes this shift by giving “The Human Stain,” for example, an epigraph from “Oedipus the King,” and now classifying his recent works under the name of the most vengeful Greek goddess, a merciless and implacable enemy of human choice.

I should say a word more about Roth’s generations. In one of those odd coincidences, it so happens that a student in one of the first classes I ever taught — Freshman English at Stanford — was Jonas Salk’s youngest son, Jonathan. He was a good looking, serious, and very able boy. His father, the famous scientist, who also, in 1970, married Picasso’s ex-mistress Francoise Gilot, was a poor boy from the Bronx, and went to City College. Jonas’ father, Daniel, was an uneducated garment worker of Russian Jewish stock. The three Salk generations nicely represent the world of Roth’s fiction, albeit that Roth’s people come from Newark and not the Bronx, and even more specifically seem all to have been bred on the Chancellor Street playground.

The older Newark generation is a daunting model of upstanding responsibility, men and women without much education but plenty of energy and perseverance and, most of all, unreflective certainty about how to live. Roth’s second generation is suckled equally on matzo ball soup and the acid free paper of the Great Books, and soon enough these men find themselves in the capital of hanky panky across the Hudson, where, reveling in the carnival of existential choice, they cast wistful glances back at the place of origin on Chancellor Street. The third generation is the generation of observers, sometimes taking the role of narrators, like Arnie in “Nemesis” (Zuckerman serves in this role too as he ages, as in “The Human Stain” and “American Pastoral”).

2) How does “Nemesis” reflect the plague narratives?

Avishai has already alluded to Camus’s novel, but for me the key book, a very Rothean one, is Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Here are a few quotations from Boccaccio’s account of the plague in 14th century Florence:

Some say that it descended upon the human race through the influence of the heavenly bodies, others that it was a punishment signifying God’s righteous anger at our iniquitous way of life … In the face of its onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing.

Large numbers of men and women abandoned their city … and headed for the countryside … It was as though they imagined that the wrath of God … would only be aroused against those who found themselves within the city walls …

Of the people who held these various opinions [on how to avoid the plague], not all of them died. Nor did they all survive.

3) What should Bucky have done?

Bucky is a shortish, extremely myopic, superbly athletic man of 23, earnest, reliable, diligent, and an orphan. Raised by his maternal grandfather to understand “that a man’s every endeavor was imbued with responsibility,” he tries in an almost pedantic way to learn where, under the circumstances, his responsibility lies. What should guide him? Where is he to find answers to the questions asked of him by Mr. Michaels, the father of the first boy from the playground to die of polio: “Where is the sense in life?” “Where are the scales of justice?” “Why does tragedy always strike down the people who least deserve it?”

To each of these questions Bucky responds: “I don’t know the answer.” But he must have an answer, and he becomes obsessed with finding an answer. The trouble is that all the advice he receives — from the example of his grandfather; from his soon-to-be-fiancée’s father, Dr. Steinberg; from his fiancée Marcia — somehow doesn’t help. So when he makes his first fateful choice—to leave Newark for the mountains—he says yes to Marcia without having intended to, without having decided to: “he startled himself … by what he’d just agreed to.” For us as readers this choice is opaque, as though we were reading a parable; it is an act without adequate explanation, an act without sufficient interiority. How can we make sense of it? We can look, perhaps, at Bucky’s love of diving. In a wonderful moment shortly after he arrives in the Poconos, Bucky goes out alone to the camp’s high board. He has to dive without his glasses, so he really cannot see, and when he dives he can longer feel the earth under his feet.

He filled his lungs with the harmless clean air of the Pocono Mountains, then bounded three steps forward, took off, and, in control of every inch of his body throughout the blind flight, did a simple swan dive into the water…

This is the condition he loves best, free of all external constraint, blind and suspended in the air but: “in control of every inch of his body.” The Bucky whom we know as Mr. Cantor, the young man of the first third of the novel, seems admirably in control, already a full-fledged adult, a self-aware actor in life. But the man we come to know as Bucky is beleaguered by obligations he can’t quite embrace as his own: raised to fulfill every responsibility, he cannot distinguish among duties, and be himself. When he chooses to quit the playground, therefore, it seems to him he has not chosen: he speaks without intending to, as if someone or something other than himself uttered words for him.

4) How much does it matter that Arnie Mesnikoff is the story’s narrator?

Well, the person who chooses Bucky’s words for him is, literally, the Chancellor playground boy and polio victim Arnie Mesnikoff. Arnie doesn’t identify himself as the narrator until we’re over a hundred pages into the book, and for two thirds of the novel we don’t give him a lot of thought. He is nevertheless a fastidious raconteur, with an affection for slightly archaic turns of phrase: “one of the boys would rush up unbidden,” he says; or: “[he] already knew many of us who habituated the playground”; or: “the driveway where they were congregated.” Arnie’s diction and syntax seem completely appropriate to the 1940s America of which he is, here, the bard. The narrative voice, the narrative, and the narrative’s protagonist all seem made of one lexicon: all seem to evoke a simpler and nobler America.

Until, that is, Bucky himself is struck with polio and Arnie as the voice of a humane common sense shows himself incapable of understanding either Bucky’s dilemma or Bucky’s choices. When Bucky tells Arnie that he was the poisoned arrow of a vindictive God, that he was polio, Arnie is horrified—because, despite the crippling results of his polio, Arnie has married and had children and lived something close to the life he might have lived had he never contracted polio. He tries to persuade Bucky that, even if he had been a carrier of polio, which is far from certain, he was an unsuspecting carrier, and so could not bear any responsibility for the plague. This is like telling Oedipus that, yes, he did kill his father and sleep with his mother, but since he didn’t mean it, hey, what was the problem?

Where in the first two sections of the novel Arnie narrates without intruding, in the third and final section he can’t allow the story to speak for itself: now he has to interpret and, more, argue. Like Marcia, he finds Arnie’s trenchant judgment of God ridiculous—Bucky, he says, exhibits “the hubris of fantastical, childish religious interpretation.” He is equally aghast at Bucky’s inability to leave impossible theological questions alone: “this maniac of why,” he calls him. Marcia and Arnie are members of the church of common sense: to them Bucky’s having contracted polio, or maybe even having passed it on to others, is a piece of bad luck, without attribution or meaning. Yes, it is awful; yes, it is hard to bear; but they believe love can counterbalance all of that. It’s not something that requires you to pluck your eyes out.

But that’s not at all how it looks to Bucky. Roth’s epigraph from “Oedipus the King” is about how unspeakable acts can be purified. And in classical Greece there is a way: even Oedipus attracts pity, and in the end his ordeal, blind and in exile, magnifies human being. But how can Bucky cleanse himself? There is only one way: he must renounce Marcia, or, put differently, he must set Marcia free. Arnie misunderstands Bucky’s act as the consequence of polio having “irreparably damaged his assurance as a virile man.” But to Bucky it’s the other way around: had he not renounced Marcia, he would have lost his manhood.

In the opening of “Winesburg, Ohio,” a book I know Roth admires, Sherwood Anderson says of the questing characters in that interconnected set of stories that they are “grotesques,” and that the collection is best understood as “The Book of the Grotesque.” You might say of Anderson’s characters that they too are “maniacs of why,” and it is true that these kind of people, fixated on meaning, relentlessly themselves, gripped to mania by one truth, are grotesque. In the great Greek tragedies, however, these grotesques, victims of horrible fates every bit as capricious as polio, achieve through their suffering a kind of glory. They do not reject God, and they do not slough off their admonishment as bad luck; but neither do they truckle under. Instead, by inhabiting, as it were, the caprice of Fate, they realize their irreducible singularity, as does Bucky.

Arnie, who says Bucky “has the aura of ineradicable failure,” nevertheless does catch faint glimpses of how Bucky might appear if appreciated from a different point of view, which perhaps explains why he ends his narrative with a glorious if ironic portrait of Bucky engaged in that quintessentially Greek act of grace, the throwing of the javelin.

Igor Webb is professor of English at Adelphi University.

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