Roth’s Deadly Seriousness
Jonathan Cape, 2010
In 2008, shortly after Philip Roth had published his third novel in as many years, the New York Times announced that he had not one but two more books on the way. The Humbling, set for release in 2009, was to tell the story of an aging New York stage actor who one day discovers that his talent has left him and shortly after finds his empty life transformed by “a counterplot of unusual erotic desire.” Nemesis, due out in 2010, was to tell of a polio epidemic in Newark during the summer of 1944 and its effects on a close-knit Jewish community. At the time that the announcement was made, one reader commenting on the online version of The Times’s article noted that these synopses sounded like excellent parodies of Roth novels, suggesting that Roth was able to be so prolific because he was merely recycling settings and themes from earlier work in new, arbitrary combinations.
The Humbling, published a year ago, and Nemesis, released last month, come as the third and fourth in a sequence of novellas that Roth began with Everyman in 2006 and followed up with Indignation in 2008. While the plots and characters of these novels are unconnected, either with each other or with any of Roth’s previous work, their common themes, style, and length make it natural to consider them as a collection of parables about death. All four trace the slow, tortuous decline of a protagonist who is either just entering or just leaving his prime years of manhood, either at the hands of bodily decay, loneliness, or blind chance. In each one, Roth sheds the impassioned, virtuosic, page-long sentences that have long been a trademark of his style for a sparse, functional prose in which, more overtly than usual, he seems to be channeling his idol Kafka.
The most recent of the novellas, Nemesis, follows the trials of Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old physical education teacher who is working as director of a local playground in Newark during the summer of 1944. To his great shame, his poor vision has kept him from enlisting to fight in the war and he is left instead to contend with an outbreak of polio that is slowly beginning to overtake the city. Raised by his grandparents after his father abandoned him and his mother died in childbirth, Bucky seeks to instill the same qualities of toughness and determination in the boys he teaches that he learned from his grandfather, “for whom duty was a religion, rather than the other way around.” Though Bucky stands at slightly under 5-foot-5 and speaks with a high-pitched voice, he has the “cast-iron, wear-resistant, strikingly bold face of a sturdy young man you [can] rely on” and is an excellent athlete. The boys on the playground all look up to him and his girlfriend Marcia, the intelligent, kindhearted daughter of a local doctor.
As the epidemic escalates and his boys fall one after another to the disease, the members of the Jewish community that Bucky inhabits start turning to religion for solace. Bucky privately rages over the thought that so many of his friends and neighbors, including Marcia and her family, can supplicate so unquestioningly to a God who is capable of such random cruelty. But out of consideration for those in mourning, and for fear of alienating Marcia and her parents, he chooses to say nothing.
As the epidemic continues to grow, Marcia, who is working at a camp in a region of upstate New York untouched by the epidemic, informs him that there’s just been an opening for a job there that Bucky would be perfect for. While Bucky wants nothing more than to escape “putrid, pestilential” Newark where “breathing in the breath of life was a dangerous activity”, and fantasizes about spending time alone in the country with Marcia, his sense of duty to the community compels him to stay even though the people closest to him all tell him that his feelings of responsibility are misplaced.
Nemesis is replete with familiar Rothian motifs—Newark, Jews, dutiful young men, and their loving, stifling father figures—though surprisingly contains none of the pyrotechnic feats of erotic description which typically make their way into Roth’s fiction. While Bucky’s railing against God for creating polio would seem to confirm early suspicions that the novel would turn out to be a parody of itself, it is a testament to Roth’s skill as a novelist that he manages to treat such themes so evocatively and with such economy of language, without seeming hackneyed or melodramatic.
As with most parables, the message of Nemesis is simple and close to the surface. If it isn’t clear enough in the telling, Roth’s narrator, who we learn was once one of Bucky’s boys on the playground and is now a grown man crippled by polio, spells it out: “Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance—the tyranny of contingency—is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor [Bucky] meant when he was decrying what he called God”; later, he says “however much I might sympathize with the amassing of woes that had blighted his life, this is nothing more than stupid hubris, not the hubris of will or desire but the hubris of fantastical, childish religious interpretation. We have heard it all before and by now have heard enough of it, even from someone as profoundly decent as Bucky Cantor.” Teleology, Roth would have us believe, can be fatal.
The “tyranny of contingency” is likewise a major theme of Indignation, whose protagonist is also a young man from Newark, one who plans to escape being drafted to fight in the Korean War by excelling academically in college, and seems all but guaranteed to succeed but for an unlikely sequence of events which end up getting him expelled and sent off to combat. By contrast, in Everyman and The Humbling, where the protagonists are both entering old age, it is inevitability, rather than contingency, that is always looming in the background as characters looking back on a lifetime of failed relationships struggle to attain some final measure of intimacy and security.
Perhaps the only artists who have recently been able to match Roth in prolificness, quality of output, and profusion of nihilistic sentiment are the Coen Brothers, who have produced a film a year for the last four years, in each of which they have, like Roth in his recent novels, been prone to underscore the sometimes brutal contingency of human existence and to exhibit a similar disdain for teleological interpretation. Their last film, A Serious Man (2009), features a physics professor living in a Jewish suburb of Minnesota who turns to the religious leaders in his community in an effort to comprehend the series of catastrophes that befall him and, like Bucky, finds no answers.
Roth once famously wrote that “sheer playfulness and deadly seriousness are my closest friends.” Lately, Roth and playfulness don’t seem to be on the best of terms, as his last four novellas possess little of the humor or warmth that tempers the pessimism in his earlier work. Given his extraordinary recent output and his current preoccupation with death, it is easy to speculate that Roth, who at 77 lives by himself, is reputed to be a fanatical exerciser and keeps to a notoriously regimented writing schedule, may be trying to confront thoughts of his own demise through sheer single-minded focus. For Roth, it seems, the best, most assured protection against life’s contingencies and the certainty of death is not love or friendship or anything so sentimental, but work.
Josh Rosaler is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at Pembroke College, Oxford.