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Philip Roth Nemesis Essay

Roth’s thirty-first novel, Nemesis, fits into a series of short later works that deal with moral issues, often death, including Everyman (2006); Exit, Ghost (2007); Indignation (2008); and The Humbling (2009). The brisk pace and sparse style of these books contrast both with the sprawling, epic character of Roth’s critically acclaimed novels of the 1990s, including American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000), and they also contrast with the bawdy humor of Roth’s early bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

Although the polio epidemic in Nemesis has been exaggerated (no epidemic that large ever consumed the city), Roth says the fear experienced by the characters is true to life, and it was the remembrance of this fear from his own boyhood in the 1940s that inspired him to write the novel. In an interview he said:

Polio was, I think, the single-greatest menace....The cause was unknown. There was no treatment. So, it was pretty terrifying.

Many book reviews have highlighted the differences between Nemesis and Roth’s early novels. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times points out that the novel is a “modest undertaking” compared to his longer works and that Mr. Cantor is quite unlike the usual protagonist of a Roth novel, “one of his self-conscious writer-heroes.” Nan Goldberg of the Newark Star-Ledger criticizes the leaner prose style of the book:

Where is the brilliant language, the razor-sharp poetry of Roth’s perpetually appalled rants?

Other critics found the book’s pat plot twists and secondary characters to be below the rich tapestry of other Roth novels such as The Plot Against America. Helen McAlpin of National Public Radio calls the novel “slight” and a “repetitive,...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Nemesis

by Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, 280 pp., $26.00

Between 1894 and 1952 the United States suffered a series of epidemic outbreaks of poliomyelitis. The worst of these, in 1916, claimed six thousand lives. For another forty years polio would remain a substantial threat to public health. The development of a vaccine changed all that: by 1994 the disease had been eradicated not only in the United States but in the whole Western Hemisphere.

Polio has been around for millennia as a contagious viral disease. Before the twentieth century it was an endemic infection of early childhood, causing fever, headaches, and nausea, no worse. In only a tiny minority of cases did it assume full-blown form and attack the nervous system, leading to paralysis or even death.

The mutation of polio into a serious disease can be blamed on improved standards of hygiene. The polio virus is passed on via human feces (the virus breeds in the small intestine). A regime of hand-washing, regular baths, and clean underwear cuts down transmission. The catch is that clean habits rob communities of resistance to the virus; and when nonresistant older children and adults contract the disease, it tends to take an extreme form. Thus the very measures that subdued diseases like cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, and diphtheria made poliomyelitis a threat to life.

The paradox that while strict hygiene lessens the risk to individuals, it weakens resistance and turns the disease lethal, was not widely grasped in the heyday of polio. In afflicted communities, eruptions of polio would trigger parallel and no less morbid eruptions of anxiety, despair, and misdirected rage.

The psychopathology of populations under attack by diseases whose transmission is ill understood was explored by Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year, which pretends to be the journal of a survivor of the bubonic plague that decimated London in 1665. Defoe records all the moves typical of plague communities: superstitious attention to signs and symptoms; vulnerability to rumor; the stigmatization and isolation (quarantining) of suspect families and groups; the scapegoating of the poor and the homeless; the extermination of whole classes of suddenly abhorred animals (dogs, cats, pigs); the fragmenting of the city into healthy and sick zones, with aggressive policing of boundaries; flight from the diseased center, never mind that contagion might thereby be spread far and wide; and rampant mistrust of all by all, amounting to a general collapse of social bonds.

Albert Camus knew Defoe’s Journal: in his novel The Plague (La Peste), written during the war years, he quotes from it and generally imitates the matter-of-fact tone of Defoe’s narrator toward the catastrophe unfolding around him. Nominally about an outbreak of bubonic plague in an Algerian city, The Plague also invites a reading as being about what the French called “the brown plague” of the German occupation,…



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