NEMESIS  by Philip Roth (Vintage Books, 2010)

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word  ‘nemesis‘ can be defined as are :

  • A source of harm or ruin.
  • Retributive justice in its execution or outcome.
  • An opponent that cannot be beaten or overcome.
  • One that inflicts retribution or vengeance.
  • The goddess of retributive justice or vengeance (Greek Mythology ).

The word ‘nemesis’ never appears in this novel but is a constant theme as we read of the tragic effects of a deadly virus.

It is the story of unseen enemy. It is also a biography of sorts.

The life of Bucky Cantor, aged 23 when we first meet him. is, like all lives, determined by circumstance and chance. Given that chance is referred to as  “the tyranny of contingency”, it come as  no surprise when his modest ambitions are thwarted.

The events of the novel are set in the summer of 1944 , in the town of Newark where polio becomes a more dominant and destructive force than the second world war.

Bucky is fit and muscular yet, though a born athlete, he cannot join his friends fighting the war against Nazism because of poor eyesight. Instead, he becomes a playground director at a school teaching boys about half his age  and proves an inspiring role model for his charges. His javelin throwing ability is particularly admired.

His, and his townsfolk’s, tranquil lives are drastically transformed by an outbreak of polio (n.b. a vaccine to all but irradicate this disease was not licensed until 1962). There is speculation about the possible source of the infection but no one knows its origin. Several of his pupils die, others are left crippled for life.

Philip Roth

“Didn’t God create everything?” Bucky asks his fiancé Marcia in the idyllic summer camp of Indian Hill, Poconos where he has reluctantly relocated to in order to escape the pestilence. His question is a deceptively simple, even childlike, one and just as when a troubled kid might ask:’if there is a God then why is there suffering?’, there is no simple answer.

The issue that Roth, through Bucky, is addressing is the eternal mystery as to how an allegedly omnipresent and all-powerful God can allow natural disasters and indiscriminate killer diseases to be.

At the very least, it suggests a serious flaw in His ‘master plan’, or, as “a sick fuck or an evil genius”, it means God simply couldn’t care less.

Or,whisper it softly,perhaps there is no God after all!

Believers will spring to the defense arguing that we were all created as free agents but if God has chosen never to intervene then it follows logically that prayer serves no purpose.

If all evil, sin and disease are the devil’s work then this indicates that Hell.Inc is more influential than its main competitor; not a very reassuring thought.

Bucky never entirely swings to the full-on atheist position but, it’s fair to say, he loses faith in the existence of a benevolent higher being. He concludes grimly that “God allowed everything, including children, to be destroyed by death”.

The narrator at first seems a neutral and anonymous voice but then , almost halfway through, is revealed as Arnie Mesnikoff  one of Bucky’s pupils and a polio survivor. But this is Bucky’s story, not his, and not a particularly happy one at that.

Unless Philip Roth has a late change of heart, Nemesis will be his final novel. He doesn’t bow out raging but leaves us with a tale full of simmering resentment about how we mortals are but pawns in a game where is rules have lost their meaning.

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