By Miguel Fernandes Ceia
The blurb on the dust cover of Philip Roth’s Nemesis is pretty accurate, ‘a terrifying epidemic is raging’, ‘focusing on [Bucky] Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground—and the realities he faces’, ‘an energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic’ in the summer of 1944. This is it—the blurb is not misleading, there are no plot twists and no last minute deus ex machina—this is what the reader will find.
Having set out his piece, Roth goes on to explore his themes, such as the Jewish predicament, hysteria, anger, bewilderment, and suffering, all in relation with the main character, Bucky Cantor. He is described as having an unbending sense of duty and honour, instilled in him by his now-dead grandfather. The novel is in three parts, each corresponding to one of Bucky Cantor’s moral failures—failures in his own view, of course.
The first failure is his inability to go to war: poor eyesight made him stay behind whilst his best friends were either fighting German forces in Europe or Japanese forces in the Pacific. It is, of course, not Bucky Cantor’s fault that he has a physical impairment, but that just makes the character more endearing to the reader. We are now used to disabled characters, such as Gregory House; disability is almost fashionable. Nevertheless, this is not such a new notion, William Gaddis noted in his essay, ‘The Rush for the Second Place’, that having a fracturing quandary was becoming fashionable,
‘the day’s mail brings flyers offering courses in Mid-life Crisis, Stress Management, Success Through Assertiveness, Reflexology, Shiatsu, Hypnocybernetics, and The Creative You. Books disappear overnight or are instant ‘best-sellers’: mortifying confessionals and est, group therapy, primal screams and “making it,” pious plagiaries on moral fiction and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s TM Technique for reducing blood pressure and increasing self-esteem. Even impotence is briefly chic; the movie screen offers the dreary sentimental humanisms of Woody Allen achieved at the expense of cast and audience alike and, for the beer crowd, Rocky’ (Gaddis).
In order to sublimate his own sense of failure, Bucky Cantor takes a position for the summer as Playground Director in the Weequahic section of Newark. All goes swell until the polio epidemic starts spreading. This moment is both a blessing and a curse to the main character: he finds a sense of purpose, something to fight against, to wage his personal war on and thus feel useful, but he also has to watch the children he is taking care of either die or become severely ill.
This takes us to the troubled relationship Cantor has with the notion of God, ‘Why didn’t God answer the prayers of Alan Michael’s parents? They must have prayed. Herbie Steinmark’s parents must have prayed. They’re good people. They’re good Jews. Why didn’t God intervene for them? Why didn’t He save their boys? (…) I don’t know why God created polio in the first place. What was He trying to prove?’
Then, when the epidemic is fully-fledged, Cantor gets the opportunity to leave the playground and join his girlfriend in a summer camp where there is no polio. Despite his early apprehension, especially his sense of abandoning the children for his own well-being, which naturally clashed with his education, he eventually goes to the Indian Hill camp, and in doing so, Bucky Cantor’s fails for the second time.
As the polio epidemic starts raging at Indian Hill, Bucky Cantor blames himself for it, even though at the time it was not known how polio was transmitted and how it travelled. The realisation that he might have been the ‘Typhoid Mary of the Chancellor playground (…) the playground polio carrier (…) the Indian Hill polio carrier’, is Bucky Cantor’s third failure, the one that eventually crushes him.
After the Plague of Aegina, according to Ovid, had killed all animals and man, a new generation was born, even stronger, from the ground, from the earth: they were called Myrmidons. The polio epidemic Roth talks about in his book did not only not provide a better generation (do bear in mind that the polio vaccine, though first tested in 1952, was only widely available in 1962), but the generation it made was physically and emotionally impaired. Poignantly, another of Roth’s characters, Arnold Mesnikoff, owns a ’(…) contracting firm specializing in architectural modification for wheelchair accessibility (…) the only such outfit in populous Northern Jersey at a moment when serious attention was beginning to be paid to the singular needs of the disabled’.
But by not becoming stronger, physically and emotionally, Bucky Cantor is a more human character, closer to our own failures, and that is where this novel excels—in its humanity.
GADDIS, William (2004). Agapē Agape and Other Writings. London: Atlantic Books.
OVID (1998). Metamorphosis. Translated by AD Melville Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/