Portnoy Agonistes

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FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK NOVEMBER 19, 2010

Portnoy Agonistes

Nemesis
By Philip Roth
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 280 pp., $26) 

I.

Even before it begins, Philip Roth’s new novel tells us something interesting about his career. Longtime readers will be familiar with the shape the author’s “Books By” list—the catalogue of previous work that precedes the title page—has taken on in recent years. Instead of the usual chronological enumeration, a set of categories: Zuckerman Books, Roth Books, Kepesh Books, Miscellany, and a bit forlornly, Other Books. The first three categories, of course, are named for their protagonists (or in the case of the later Zuckermans, their narrator); “Miscellany” refers to a pair of non-fiction collections. Nothing surprising so far, but now the new novel has given its name to a new category, indeed a new kind of category: “Nemeses,” a rubric that includes, with the exception of Exit Ghost, the last of the Zuckerman books, all of the short novels that Roth has been producing, one a year, since 2006—Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and Nemesis itself. With the new book, in other words, the recent chapter of Roth’s career becomes aware of itself as a larger artistic idea—albeit one whose meaning is not immediately clear.

For if Roth’s oeuvre can be organized by category, it can also be segmented, more usefully, by phase. There is the earnest-young-writer phase, which began with Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and included his first two novels, Letting Go and When She Was Good. There is the shock-the-bourgeoisie phase, which began in jism-spraying fashion with Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and included The Breast, Our Gang (a gleefully wicked political satire), and The Professor of Desire. There is the portrait-of-the-artist/ metafiction phase—the Zuckerman and Roth books—which began with The Ghost Writer (1979). There is the great late-season run of historical fictions that began with American Pastoral in 1997—Roth was already in his sixties—and included The Human Stain and The Plot Against America. Without multiplying the epicycles, it wouldn’t do to be too strict about these demarcations. Roth’s experiments in pseudo-autobiography began with My Life As a Man, during the Portnoy phase. Sabbath’s Theater (1995), often thought of as his greatest work, falls between phases three and four. (It is also the odd man out among the official categories; without it, “Other Books” is essentially “Early Books,” and Sabbath stands implacably alone.) But the larger shape still holds.

Now, after the crescendo of late major novels, and understandably given the author’s age, an annual series of shorter works, the Nemeses plus Exit Ghost. A Zuckerman book the latter surely is—and brilliantly rounds out the cycle by channeling The Ghost Writer in cast and theme as well as title—but it also belongs among its age-mates. For what unites the novels of the current phase is not their length alone, but—and here we start to get an understanding of that odd new label, “Nemeses”—their common interest in dramatic form, specifically, in tragic form.

Everyman, the first of the series, is named for the medieval morality play. But while the original is a divine comedy—Everyman, summoned by Death, repents and goes to Heaven—Roth’s retelling is a secular tragedy. His protagonist also faces death, also looks back on a life of error, also finds himself bereft before the grave. But here, instead of angels, there are only doctors; instead of salvation, only extinction. In Exit Ghost, the following year, the theatrical elements were even more pronounced. The title comes from Hamlet, and the novel likewise deals with haunting, and madness, and fathers, and incest, and bad dreams. It has five parts, like a Shakespeare drama, and a play-within-the-novel: a series of interpolated scenes—five, again, to be exact—that constitute a kind of countertext, the protagonist’s futile attempt, like Hamlet’s The Mousetrap, to master and manage a messy reality by reducing it to dramatic form.

Next came Indignation, where tragic mood turns openly to tragic plot. The young protagonist, acting out the dictates of his character and blind to the circumstances that beset him—like Oedipus, like Achilles—unleashes his own downfall. At the end, the narrator laments the young man’s fate in the manner of a Greek chorus: “Yes, if only this and if only that.... If only his father, if only Flusser, if only Elwyn, if only Caudwell, if only Olivia—!” Roth goes so far as to explicitly articulate a moral to the story, but if the gesture comes from Aesop, its purport is Sophoclean: “the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”

The Humbling, whose title might describe the tragic process itself, extends the exploration in a different way. Now the protagonist actually is an actor, one whose powers have deserted him during a performance of Macbeth. His agent wants him to get back in the game by accepting the role of James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night—that is, stop being a washed-up actor by playing one. Instead—this is chapter two—revival comes, as usual with Roth, through sex, this time in the form of an affair with the daughter of old theatrical friends, herself named after a dramatic character, Pegeen Mike from The Playboy of the Western World. But then, as in a modern play, comes the third act, chapter three—called, in fact, “The Last Act”—where the novel lurches back toward tragedy, and the protagonist writes his own ending (“finally it occurred to him to pretend that he was committing suicide in a play”) in the style of The Seagull.

 

And so to Nemesis, named for the very engine of Greek tragedy, the principle of cosmic retribution. Like Indignation, Nemesis takes place during the era of Roth’s youth—the former in the early 1950s, the latter in the summer of 1944. Like Indignation, it begins in Roth’s Combray, the old Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic in Newark. Like Indignation, it centers on a young protagonist—Marcus Messner in the earlier book, who journeys off to college in the heartland; Bucky Cantor in the new one, twenty-three years old during that fateful season of the war. And like Indignation, it is a kind of Attic tragedy in prose: hubris, hamartia, nemesis; spare plot, fallen hero, endless suffering.

Bucky—solid, orphaned, an athlete, dependable, but 4F on account of his eyesight—directs the playground at the local school, watching over the neighborhood boys throughout the broiling summer days. But then a more insidious danger strikes—an outbreak of polio that quickly flares into an epidemic and starts to claim his innocent charges. Bucky feels helpless, bereft, angry at God, but also torn: his girlfriend Marcia is working at a summer camp in the Poconos, and the camp director wants to bring him up to run the waterfront.

Should he stay or should he go? Who will protect the boys if he abandons them?—a question made more urgent by his own history. His mother having died in childbirth, Bucky was left to be raised by his grandparents after his feckless father skipped town. Still, how much good is he doing in Newark anyway? Is it even healthy for the boys to play together anymore? And doesn’t he also have a right to be happy and safe? But his friends are invading France, and Bucky knows where duty lies. His boys need him; his community needs him. His father was a crook, but his grandfather taught him what it means to be a man. And yet, one evening on the phone with Marcia, he suddenly betrays himself—the moment of hamartia, the tragic mistake (not, as it is often misinterpreted, tragic flaw). Yes, he blurts out, he’ll come up after all.

But as for Oedipus, there’s no running away. Bucky makes a break for mountain air and maidenly love, but guilt follows him, turning the sweetness to ashes—and before long, polio follows him, too. Which is to say, nemesis does. His downfall is stunningly swift and complete. In body and spirit, the summer leaves him permanently broken. The novel’s final section flashes forward twenty-seven years. The narrator, who was one of the boys who had contracted the disease (and who, as Roth’s coeval, functions as the author’s surrogate), runs into his old mentor on the Newark streets. The narrator has lived a normal life despite his disability, but Bucky, out of remorse and self-loathing, has refused to move on from those distant events, and his existence is a desert.

Roth multiplies the classical overtones. Bucky’s athletic specialty is the javelin, and the novel ends with a beautifully lyrical retrospect that, evoking the hero’s youthful body in all its perfection and power, might have been lifted from a vase. (“The first javelin thrower was said to be Hercules,” Bucky tells the boys.) As for the epidemic itself, it is nothing other than the kind of plague that incites the action of the Iliad. Bucky recollects the Indian lore, picked up at the summer camp, that diseases are caused by invisible arrows—exactly what Homer’s warriors, invoking Apollo, likewise believed.

But most important is the way the hero rages at the gods—or, this being 1971, at God. His final exchange with the narrator functions, rather didactically, like the moral at the end of Indignation or the epilogue to the medieval Everyman, announcing what we ought to think about the action. Bucky blames both God and himself—the two together, somehow, at the same time, “mystically, mysteriously,” as the narrator puts it, “in their dreadful joining together as the sole destroyer.” For the narrator, the problem is that Bucky blames anyone at all:

That the polio epidemic ... was a tragedy, he could not accept. He has to convert tragedy into guilt.... He has to ask why. Why? Why? That it is pointless, contingent, preposterous, and tragic will not satisfy him. That it is a proliferating virus will not satisfy him. Instead he looks desperately for a deeper cause, this martyr, this maniac of the why.

It is, the narrator concludes, “nothing more than stupid hubris, not the hubris of will or desire but the hubris of fantastical, childish religious interpretation.”

Bucky’s tragedy, in other words, is that he misunderstands the nature of tragedy. He substitutes a Jewish or JudeoChristian metaphysics not for a pagan one (since Oedipus also felt guilt, and the Greeks certainly asked why) but for a modern mechanistic, atheistic one. There is no why, the narrator implies; all there is is is. Bucky’s real hamartia is the delusion that he belongs to a morally coherent universe, a world of good and evil and guilt and punishment. Something went wrong, so someone must be to blame, and that someone is him.

“The Last Act”: the title of The Humbling’s final chapter takes advantage of a long-familiar pun in dramatic literature. Acting is about acting. The tragic stage has always been a laboratory for the examination of action in all of its dimensions: motive, intention, choice, consequence. But theater by its nature tends to turn the equation around. When we act, are we really only putting on an act? That’s what Roth’s tragedian seems to think. At the very least, before he takes the ultimate action (“finally it occurred to him to pretend that he was committing suicide in a play”), he has to make believe that he is acting. The question arises—for Bucky as well—as to whether, when we act, we must necessarily imagine an audience, even if only an audience of the self. When the protagonist of Indignation takes his fatal step—“bang[ing] down his fist on the dean’s desk and tell[ing] him for a second time, ‘Fuck you,’” a gesture that propels him from his bovine college to the abattoir of Korea—he seems to be playing a role that he has written for his own admiration.

In Nemesis, the name of the protagonist is Cantor. In The Humbling, it is Axler. In Indignation, it is Messner. That latter work, of all of Roth’s recent novels the one most explicitly concerned with the question of action, also gives us, among the young man’s fellow students, a Flusser, a Cottler, a Ziegler, and a Spector. This is surely no coincidence. All of these are, or at least sound like, the names of agents, doers of action. But most are also something more specific: the names of occupations. Messner is a sexton; Cottler is a kettle-maker; Spector is a teacher’s assistant; Ziegler is a bricklayer. Cantor, of course, is a cantor.

Not just occupations, then, but occupations either working-class or Jewish. Occupations, in other words, that evoke the world of Newark’s Jewish fathers as Roth has built it up across his oeuvre, but especially in the nostalgic works of recent years, the historical novels as well as the Nemeses—a world of shopkeepers, frugality, long hours, continence, a world of sacrifice. In Everyman, the protagonist’s father was a jeweler. Marcus Messner’s father is a butcher. Bucky Cantor’s grandfather, the man who raised him, ran a grocery store.

And here we come to the crux of the matter in Nemesis. “The first javelin thrower was said to be Hercules”: Bucky wants to be a hero, and he wants to be a hero in exactly the way that his immigrant grandfather was. Not by doing spectacular deeds, but by behaving steadily and dependably and resolutely—exactly as he was taught to do: 

The grandfather saw to the boy’s masculine development, always on the alert to eradicate any weakness that might have been bequeathed—along with the poor eyesight—by his natural father and to teach the boy that a man’s every endeavor was imbued with responsibility.

And at the tender age of ten, young Eugene (for that is Bucky’s given name) lived up to his grandfather’s teachings. Helping out one evening in the grocery store, he spied a rat in the storeroom. Instead of running, he grabbed a shovel:

Holding his breath, he advanced on tiptoe until he had stalked the panicked rat into a corner. When the boy lifted the shovel into the air, the rat rose on its hind legs and gnashed its frightening teeth, deploying itself to spring. But before it could leave the floor, he brought the underside of the shovel swiftly downward and, catching the rodent squarely on the skull, smashed its head open. 

“It was following this triumph,” the narrator tells us, “that his grandfather-because of the nickname’s connotation of obstinacy and gutsy, spirited, strong-willed fortitude—took to calling the bespectacled ten-year-old Bucky.”

It is Homer in Newark again. The story of the rat is a working-class version of the celebrated story of Odysseus’s scar. The rat takes the place of the boar, the shovel of the spear (though later, of course, Bucky will carry a spear). In The Odyssey, the presiding patriarch is also the hero’s maternal grandfather, Autolycus, who also gifts him with a name. Even Roth’s description is Homeric: “Blood intermingled with bits of bone and brain drained into the cracks of the stockroom floorboards.” But as in Homer, coming of age is only the beginning.

Bucky’s grandfather is gone by the summer of 1944, but the novel plants paternal figures all around its hero. There is his girlfriend’s father, Dr. Steinberg, “a man of natural, unadorned authority.” There is the camp director, Mr. Blomback, who likes to say that “manhood is the first aim of education.” There is the camp’s own doctor, “a middle-aged man with an unruffled manner.” Having lost his father before he even knew him, Bucky can’t get enough of these replacements. But now it is time to be a man himself. Early in the epidemic, he single-handedly faces down a pack of Italian teenagers from the other side of town who have shown up at the playground to cause trouble—an episode that does indeed make him a hero, as well as something of a father figure, “an idolized, protective heroic older brother, particularly to those whose own older brothers were off in the war.”

The war, of course, is a large part of the point. Because of those eyes he inherited from his worthless father, a kind of congenital taint, Bucky’s missed his chance to be a real hero. The shame of walking around safe at home during the summer of D-Day is never remote from the young man’s mind. The polio, then, is the war brought home (“his war,” Bucky calls it)—among other reasons, because it raises the same agonizing theological questions. In the middle of it all, Bucky learns that one of his closest friends has died in France. How could God have let it happen, any more than he was letting children die in Newark?

Of course, in 1944, God was letting something else happen, a fact the novel hints at all too clearly. Bucky’s grandfather had taught him to stand up for himself, not only as a man but also as a Jew. Bucky seeks to pass the lesson on, teaching his boys “to be physically brave and physically fit and never to allow themselves to be pushed around or ... defamed as Jewish weaklings and sissies.” “I’m against the frightening of Jews,” says steady Dr. Steinberg when everyone in Weequahic is panicking about the outbreak. “That was Europe.”

The stakes for Bucky could hardly be higher: live down his father; live up to his grandfather; make his new paternal figures proud; protect his boys; erase the stigma of the noncombatant; stand up for Jewish manhood. It’s no surprise he runs away, and also no surprise that he can never forgive himself. “There’s nobody less salvageable than a ruined good boy,” the narrator concludes:

The guilt in someone like Bucky may seem absurd but, in fact, is unavoidable. Such a person is condemned. Nothing he does matches the ideal in him. He never knows where his responsibility ends. He never trusts his limits because ... he will never guiltlessly acknowledge that he has any limits.

The refusal to acknowledge limits: this, in the classical conception, is the very definition of hubris. Bucky’s moral extremism, far more than his theology, is the source of his downfall. His standards are simply too high. If he can’t live up to them, he won’t allow himself to live at all. 

 

II.

Now the drama of the good boy is not exactly what we think of when we think of Philip Roth. Roth made his reputation not only writing about bad boys, but in so doing, becoming one himself. Paternal strictures; immigrant restraint; Jewish respectability and moral seriousness; the saintly victimhood, as he perceived it, of Malamud and other literary father figures: it was in the face of all of these that Roth rang up his Jolly Roger. Just on the basis of Goodbye, Columbus, he was already a black sheep in the Jewish community, the kid who washed the dirty underwear in public. With Portnoy—the ultimate literary shande—he made himself into an outright renegade. Chaucer called Ovid Venus’s clerk; Roth was something more like penis’s clerk. “LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID,” Portnoy sloganizes. To Isaac Babel’s characterization of the Jewish writer as “a man with autumn in his heart and spectacles on his nose,” the young Nathan Zuckerman adds, “and blood in his penis.” The soiled handkerchief that Alvin Pepler leaves for the protagonist in Zuckerman Unbound could stand as their creator’s calling card.

But now, in most of the Nemeses as well as The Plot Against America, the novel that preceded them, Roth has turned to filial piety, on both his own part and his protagonists’. Portnoy’s father is a figure of fun, the terminally constipated working stiff. But in the recent fiction Weequahic’s fathers (and mothers) are pillars of rectitude and strength, the rock on which the world stands firm—not the adolescent’s parents but the child’s. There may indeed be something of nostalgia here, and something also of an aging man’s inevitable shift in values. The heroically prolific Roth has famously become a model of monastic diligence himself, putting in the long hours, up there in his writing studio in rural Connecticut, as steadily, as laboriously, and as productively as any immigrant shopkeeper.

Yet something further also appears to be at work. For all their strenuous fucking, Roth’s priapic protagonists never seem to manage to convince themselves that they are really men. It isn’t just that Zuckerman, following his prostate surgery some volumes ago, is impotent, though the situation is certainly emblematic. It’s that the very notion of sexual conquest as a way of proving one’s virility turns out to be inadequate. The Weequahic strivers, they were men. Bucky’s grandfather “had come alone to America in the 1880s as an immigrant child from a Jewish village in Polish Galicia. His fearlessness had been learned in the Newark streets, where his nose had been broken more than once in fights with anti-Semitic gangs.” And the older brothers, the ones who fought in World War II—as Roth, b. 1933, could not—they were men, too. But Roth’s generation, coming of age in a safe and a prosperous world, all the postwar generations, what options have they had for winning their masculinity? Nothing but sex, combat with girls. And that, after all, is only kid stuff.

 

For Marcus Messner and Bucky Cantor, though, the brace of recent young protagonists, a different tack. From id we turn to superego. While Marcus has a memorable blowjob, the sex in both novels is studiously secondary; each young man is tightly wrapped and stays that way. “That tyrant, my superego,” Portnoy says, “he should be strung up, that son of a bitch.” But Bucky is all superego, and Marcus does him one better: he rebels in the name of the superego. A paragon of discipline and duty, the perfect polite Jewish brainy boy, he runs away from home because his father will not acknowledge just how stainlessly obedient he is. At college in Ohio, while the rest of the campus erupts in an epic panty raid, he gets himself expelled on a point of principle, nailing Bertrand Russell to the mast as he goes down for his ideals.

The generational inferiority complex of Roth’s cohort manifests itself in both works. Bucky’s draft status renders him equivalent to the little boys he supervises. Marcus ends up dying in Korea, the younger brothers’ war. The latter circumstance bespeaks a deeper point. However Roth may venerate his parents’ generation, he is not suggesting that anybody emulate them. To do so would be to try to live an anachronism. Marcus, we’re told, is the only one of his classmates to be killed in the Korean war. The same offensive regulations that he martyrs himself in defiance of, others mock and learn to circumvent. One of his roommates, Bertram Flusser (whose very name is lax and louche), is the college’s “abominable bohemian,” outlandish and contemptuous and gay, but the conservative administration never lays a finger on him. Taking revenge for a minor slight while the protagonist is absent in the hospital, Flusser systematically masturbates all over Marcus’s clothes—Portnoy avant la lettre.

Flusser is the future, c. 1951, and it is no coincidence that he is also an actor. In the postwar world, the fixed identities of immigrant Weequahic are history. The Humbling, that actor’s novel, is about “transformation,” the title of its second part. Axler, of course, has his roles. His lover, Pegeen Mike, whose very name suggests sexual fluidity, is an ex-lesbian (and present bisexual) whose former lover underwent a sex change and whom the protagonist makes over like a latter-day Eliza Doolittle. Zuckerman’s whole career—and through him and others, Roth’s—has been a process of successive metamorphoses. Ovid is right: the transformative power of eros and art.

Axler and Zuckerman are old; the one dies and the other exits because they lose the strength to start again and so run out of ways to change. But Marcus and Bucky belong to Euripides; like Pentheus in The Bacchae, they refuse to release their rigid self-conceptions and so, like him, are torn apart. Marcus is dismembered on the battlefield. Bucky’s frame is wrenched by polio, and his spirit is emasculated. “Bucky considered himself a gender blank—as in a cartridge that is blank,” “no longer man enough to be a husband and a father.” His is not a literal death, but it is a living death. Like Marcus, he could have saved himself if only he, like Roth or Zuckerman, had had a sense of irony, the double vision that enables you to step outside yourself and play a role, or recognize that that’s already what you’re doing—if he were not so insistent, in other words, on the importance of being earnest. “He was largely a humorless person,” the narrator says, “articulate enough but with barely a trace of wit, who never in his life had spoken satirically or with irony, who rarely cracked a joke or spoke in jest—someone instead haunted by an exacerbated sense of duty.” Bucky, like Marcus, gets stuck in the past, a living fossil of 1944. Portnoy’s way is the right one after all, given what the world is now.

In fact, in a curious and clearly deliberate fashion, the spirit of Portnoy hovers over both these young-man books. The new novels reorchestrate scenes from their predecessor, but in a much more innocent or sober mood. Marcus’s shiksa girlfriend stuns him with a first-night blowjob much the way The Monkey does to Portnoy. But the latter’s smirking connoisseurship—“This stranger then proceeded to suck me off with a mouth that might have gone to a special college to learn all the wonderful things it knew”—is tempered down to Marcus’s artless “How did she know what to do or how to do it?” Portnoy wrings high comedy from Alex’s mother’s suspicions about her son’s extracurricular eating habits: “You go to Harold’s Hot Dog and Chazerai Palace after school and you eat French fries with Melvin Weiner. Don’t you?” Nemesis rewrites this as the lamentation of a dead boy’s aunt, on the way to his burial, and there’s nothing funny about it: 

Everyone in the car had been silent until they nearly reached the crest of the hill and were passing Syd’s hot dog joint.
   “Why did he have to eat in that filthy hole?” Mrs. Beckerman said.... “He wanted to be another Louis Pasteur ... Instead ... he had to go to eat in a place crawling with germs.”

The echoes create the sense, especially in Nemesis, of a depthless kind of naïveté—a more intelligent and literary version of the effect connived at by the ’50s-nostalgia genre in the popular culture of the 1970s (Grease, Happy Days). We read about 1944 or 1951, but with a thundering sense of everything that’s soon to come—which is to say, of everything that’s missing. Bucky’s relationship with his girlfriend, Marcia—Marcia!—has an Archie-at-the-malt-shop innocence. (“Necking” enters into it a lot.) At camp, when a counselor tells the protagonist about his trouble mastering the intricacies of competitive diving, the dialogue modulates to the key of gee-whiz: 

“Maybe I can help,” Bucky said.
“Would you?”
“If there’s time, sure.”
“Oh, that’s great. Thanks.”
“We’ll take them one by one. All you probably need are a few faults corrected and you’ll be fine.”
“And I’m not hogging your time?”
“Nope. If and when I have the time, it’s yours.”
“Thanks again, Mr. Cantor.”

Of course, “necking” is exactly what they did back then. But the effect of the antiquarian perspective is to flatten the characters into virtual stereotypes. People in the ’40s may have been more innocent in certain ways—or at least some people, in some places—but they were not simplistic. Marcia the perfect girlfriend; her adoring younger sisters; her wise and patient father-knows-best; even Bucky the Boy Scout himself, notwithstanding his ethical struggles: all of them are one-dimensional, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kinds of figures, lacking the internal tension of substantially realized fictional characters. With its schematically tragic shape and concluding narratorial pronouncements, the whole thing feels too easy, a demonstration rather than a story.

The language, too, is largely flat, as well as oddly impersonal: “Mr. Cantor had been twenty and a college junior when the U.S. Pacific Fleet was bombed and nearly destroyed in the surprise Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941.” Is Roth writing for the twenty-fifth century? Why not simply, “Mr. Cantor had been twenty and a college junior during Pearl Harbor”? There’s that distance again, but also, a sense that Roth is disengaged from his material. The same was true of Indignation, though the problem here is worse. The writing is sapless, lurching, stiff. Here are the girls at Bucky’s playground: “Leaping and darting about with excitement—except where Myron Kopferman and his like would apishly interfere—they exhibited astounding energy.” And here’s the head of that Italian gang: “The brazen ease of his thumbs tucked into the front two loops of his trousers served no less than his gaze to register his contempt.” In freshman composition class, the term of art for this is “awk.”

Roth’s protagonists have almost always been around his age, and the gap between his present consciousness and those of Marcus and Bucky may have simply been too great for him to bridge. But the main problem, I think, lies precisely in the kinds of people that those young men are. Roth’s prose, that magnificent voice of his, has always fed off the twin passions of lust and rage; Marcus and Bucky’s personalities revolve around the need to keep those emotions suppressed. Indignation only hits its stride when Marcus’s girlfriend comes to his hospital room for pillow talk and surreptitious sex play. In Nemesis, the language sits up only at the end, when some real anger is finally expressed. If Roth created the effect deliberately—devised an angular, earnest, humorless style to mimic his protagonists’ internal states—the choice was poorly conceived, another demonstration of the fallacy of imitative form.

The other possibility, of course, is senescence. Everyman, Exit Ghost, The Humbling: when Roth is not imagining the tragedies of callow young men in the distant past, he chronicles the failing powers of old men in the here and now—the “pointless, contingent, preposterous, and tragic” ending that awaits us all. “He’d lost his magic,” The Humbling begins. “The impulse was spent.” The self-referential implications of that slender work, a portrait of the artist in decline, are everywhere apparent. And yet its author has been counted out before, only to rally again. Word is that Nemesis completes the sequence of short novels. Its hero may not have the will to reinvent himself, but its creator surely does. 

William Deresiewicz is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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posted in: from the back of the book, columbus, newark, america, bertram flusser, bucky cantor, marcia, marcus messner, nathan zuckerman, pegeen mike, philip roth

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