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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Philip Roth

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To purchase Nemesis

Title: Nemesis
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 280 pages
Availability: Nemesis - US
Nemesis - UK
Nemesis - Canada
Némésis - France
Nemesis - Deutschland
Nemesi - Italia
Némesis - España

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Our Assessment:

B : a very solid build-up and addresses intriguing questions, but undermined by its third act

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 6/10/2010 Jeff Giles
Financial Times . 11/10/2010 Adrian Turpin
The Guardian . 2/10/2010 Christopher Tayler
The Independent . 1/10/2010 Matt Thorne
The Jerusalem Post . 15/10/2010 Glenn C. Altschuler
London Rev. of Books . 4/11/2010 Tim Parks
New Statesman . 14/10/2010 Leo Robson
The NY Rev. of Books . 28/10/2010 J.M.Coetzee
The NY Times B 5/10/2010 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/10/2010 Leah Hager Cohen
The Observer A 3/10/2010 Edward Docx
San Francisco Chronicle . 3/10/2010 Susanna Sonnenberg
Scotland on Sunday D 10/10/2010 Stuart Kelly
The Spectator A 9/10/2010 Lewis Jones
The Telegraph . 1/10/2010 Tim Martin
The Telegraph B 10/10/2010 Tibor Fischer
The Telegraph . 7/10/2010 Bob Minzesheimer
The Washington Post . 5/10/2010 Roxana Robinson

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, with varying opinions about all aspects of it -- and lots noting it has more of the feel of a short story/novella

  From the Reviews:
  • "This would have been a stunning short story." - Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly

  • "(A)s the reader comes to see in the masterful third "act" of Nemesis, Buckyís fatal flaw is not the moral cowardice he fears but the manner in which he lets guilt paralyse his life, like a polio of the soul, and the hubris he shows in believing that he can battle the "tyranny of contingency"." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "But in the end, and despite the sometimes bizarre spectacle of Roth setting up uninflected niceness to crush, Nemesis is most memorable as his least contemptuously spun out story since Everyman." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian

  • "It's the final third of the novel which elevates this tragic story beyond a series of miserable events and back towards Roth's grand theme: the injustice of fate. What makes Roth such an important novelist is the effortless way he brings together the trivial and the profoundly serious" - Matt Thorne, The Independent

  • "Unsatisfying as philosophy, Nemesis comes alive as Roth re-creates the sights, smells and sensibilities of wartime Weequahic." - Glenn C. Altschuler, The Jerusalem Post

  • "Roth is not much interested in the vacillating mind: his dilemmas are short-lived. (...) The introduction of Arnold as a narrator allows Roth to remind us that the Greeks saw as divine intervention what modern man thinks of as the merest bad luck while at the same time distancing himself from the debate and leaving his own position unclear. But so brazenly are we thrust towards this textbook enigma that readers may find themselves more intrigued by the authorís loyalty to tired literary stratagems than interested in the fate of characters who were never much more than pieces on a chessboard." - Tim Parks, London Review of Books

  • "(D)espite the book's deterministic structure, its prose never falters or fails to compel. (...) There is little messing around or hanging about. A thought occurs to him, and he's off; eventually, he makes his way back to the original thought -- no shortness of breath, not a hint of brow-sweat. Then a new thought occurs to him, and he's off again." - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "Nemesis is an artfully constructed, suspenseful novel with a cunning twist toward the end. Generally, a reviewer will try not to spoil the impact of a book by giving away its proper secrets. But I see no way of exploring Nemesis further without breaking this rule. (...) Nemesis itself is not really large enough in conception -- in the inherent capacities of the characters it deploys, in the action it gives them to play out -- to do more than scratch the surface of the great questions it raises. Despite its length (280 pages) it has the feel of a novella." - J.M.Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

  • "That Bucky is such a one-dimensional character makes for a pallid, predictable story line in which the random workings of fate and the fate of temperament ó rather than genuine free choice ó are the narrative drivers. Itís all a bit by the numbers, though Mr. Roth executes Buckyís story with professionalism and lots of granular period detail. (...) Itís not unmoving, exactly, but all a little synthetic -- less like a vintage Roth narrative than like a very well-executed O. Henry story, complete with a deliberately ironic plot twist and a sentimental outcome." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "His newest, Nemesis, stands out for its warmth. It is suffused with precise and painful tenderness. (...) Is it impertinent to suggest Roth outdoes himself here by getting out of his own way ? This short book has all his brilliance, minus the bluster. And itís a love story. Iím not thinking of Bucky and his girl, but of the narrator and Bucky. Roth achieves something strange and good here with point of view." - Leah Hager Cohen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Nemesis -- if it's not too sinister to say so -- is a breath of fresh air, because polio provides Roth with a new, outward-looking and substantial subject around which his writing can thrive; and, perhaps for this reason, the book contains many of the things that I find most exhilarating in his work. (...) Then there's the sheer delight of his style -- that sustained, lucid, precise and subtly cadenced prose that can keep you inside the dynamic (and often contradictory) thoughts of one of his characters without a paragraph break for as many pages as he wants." - Edward Docx, The Observer

  • "Nemesis is oddly neat, the first two of its three sections like a right and a left hand -- obvious in their balance, even pedantic in the brief, expert history lesson about polio. I suspect that Roth can do this with his eyes closed (.....) There's a curious archaic quality to the grammar and dialogue, heightening the stagy, everyman aspect of the story." - Susanna Sonnenberg, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Roth's novel manages to be both onerous and slight (...) None of this is made any more convincing by lacklustre prose. At times Roth is just careless -- split infinitives, bald clichés -- and at others, the combination of information dump and unwieldy sentences is the opposite of elegant" - Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

  • "Roth is best known for sex and jokes, and Nemesis features neither, but it is a masterly performance none the less: an angry kaddish, or furious act of mourning, as deft and subtle in its construction as it is wrenchingly violent emotionally. Unmistakably a late work, it recalls Beethovenís Op. 127." - Lewis Jones, The Spectator

  • "Nemesis is told in a narrative voice that sometimes borders on the pallid. The unmistakable Roth delivery -- that inimitably juicy, excoriating, grandstanding blend of the demotic and the literary that peaks in ranting splendour in the best of his long novels -- is here reduced to a narrative voice that seems to flirt with banality." - Tim Martin, The Telegraph

  • "Roth does an excellent job of conjuring up the fear that polio caused before the arrival of a vaccine. (...) Cantor is one of Rothís best creations and the atmosphere of terror is masterfully fashioned, but it doesnít disguise the fact that Nemesis is at best a long short story which has been padded out with lengthy descriptions of Newark, lengthy descriptions of kids playing and lengthy descriptions of the history and effects of polio. Roth does all this with great skill, but this recreation of 1940s New Jersey is, Iíd wager, of more interest to the author than the reader." - Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph

  • "Nemesis is painful and powerful. It reminds us how much worse life used to be and about the two kinds of tragedies: the ones that strike us and the ones we make for ourselves." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

  • "The book's most serious flaw, however, is not its flagging energy but an odd lacuna that occurs in many of Roth's books. His work is rich with philosophical inquiry, deep with intellectual exploration, but lacking in emotional range. He seems unable to write convincingly of the drama at the center of our lives: a deep, vital and passionate commitment to another person. Roth doesn't create a loving bond that's both intellectual and erotic, one that entails trust and respect as well as carnal intent. He writes tenderly about the family, but only from the viewpoint of a son or grandson; he writes with little depth or understanding about wives, girlfriends or mistresses. Absent from his work is that lifelong dialogue between lovers, the chronicle of their fierce struggle to engage on every level." - Roxana Robinson, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Nemesis is presented in three chapters, the first two (and the bulk of the small book) covering only a short period in the summer of 1944, the third, 'Reunion', a sort of postscript that completes the story in 1971. Nemesis is the story of Eugene 'Bucky' Cantor, twenty-three, a P.E. teacher just out of college who couldn't go off to fight in World War II -- much as he was eager to -- because of his terrible eyesight. So while his best friends were storming the beaches on D-Day he was performing his summer job-duties as playground director, not called on to doing anything more dangerous than standing up to some wannabe Italian toughs until the police come. Yes, he was: "the most exemplary and revered authority we knew" -- but that merely to a group of young kids.
       The narrator is almost omniscient, the narrative following closely at Bucky's heels, describing the details of his humdrum life, with only the occasional indication, in the first two parts, as to the narrator's identity. He mentions, for example, that Bucky taught at a local school, and so he: "already knew many of us who habituated the playground from the gym classes he taught" -- but the boy does not identify himself, remaining just one in a crowd: this is Bucky's story, and if Bucky is not the one telling it the focus is still entirely on his experiences.
       In the final section the narrator finally steps forward and introduces himself, and takes over the narrative reins more clearly: he's Arnold Mesnikoff, one of the boys from the playground now -- in 1971 -- all grown who ran into Mr.Cantor and, over weekly lunches together, got to hear Bucky's whole story -- the events of 1944, and then the aftermath. Whereas Mesnikoff is willingly Cantor's mouthpiece for the 1944-sections, drawing almost no attention to his own minor role back then, he can't bring himself to remain a mere recounter for the rest. He doesn't like how things turned out, and how Cantor reacted; he insists on telling it his way, allowing Cantor some say but also taking the story firmly in hand and voicing his strong opinion too; Mesnikoff's own life (as example) also comes into play, as he thinks it shows how things could have turned out differently for Cantor.
       Bucky seems a nice but harmless fellow, not exceptionally bright but a decent sort. It's hard not to see him as mock-heroic: a diminutive figure -- he's not even five foot five -- who, instead of waging noble battle (like his army-friends), is reduced to wiping the Italian spit off the playground. But the times have brought an enemy to Newark: polio has broken out again, an invisible enemy that strikes -- often hard and fast -- and which no one knows how to protect themselves against. Bucky seems like a voice of reason, calming the kids and trying to calm their parents.
       Bucky has a girlfriend, Marcia, off working at a summer camp in the Poconos, and her father is a doctor, who reassures Bucky:

Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us. Fostering less fear -- that's your job and mine.
       For the most part, Bucky does that well, but fear does get to him too (and, with a couple of playground-regulars quickly keeling over, one can't really blame him): Marcia offers him a way out when a position opens up at her camp. Instead of fulfilling his obligations at the playground, he quits and heads for the safety of the hills. He gets an earful from his boss:
You realize that you haven't exactly won my confidence by pulling a stunt like this. You realize that leaving me in the lurch in July like this isn't likely to make me disposed to ever hire you again, Cancer.
       Quitting in this way is out of character; it's also bad timing: after a few more days the authorities shut down all the playgrounds anyway, and he could have left with a cleaner conscience. As it turns out, it doesn't much matter: what's a bit more guilt and shame ? Because Cantor already carries loads of it with him, and because he also carries more than that: his boss had it right, he is a cancer.
       Cantor's mother died in childbirth, and his father was a criminal, and he has always felt considerable guilt about that. Not being able to fight in the war weighs on him too. This new invisible threat, polio, is yet another thing he can't tackle head-on; of course, it becomes yet another thing that defeats him.
       Mesnikoff is philosophical:
     Sometimes you're lucky and sometimes you're not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance -- the tyranny of contingency -- is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr.Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.
       Unable to direct his anger elsewhere, Cantor directed it against: "the source, the creator -- against God, who made the virus". Mesnikoff's kind of fatalism was and remained foreign to him: he needed to place blame -- and it was his bad luck that he had so much bad luck that wherever he placed it the weight was still crushing.
       Mesnikoff correctly diagnoses him:
Bucky, you've always been this way. You could never put things at the right distance -- never ! You're always holding yourself accountable when you're not. Either it's terrible God who is accountable, or its terrible Bucky Cantor who is accountable, when in fact accountability belongs to neither. Your attitude toward God -- it's juvenile, it's just plain silly.
       These are the big questions the novel wants to grapple with, of god and accountability and guilt and evil and chance; the book's failure comes with Mesnikoff elbowing to the front and guiding us with his conclusions and his easy condemnation of Bucky's blame-throwing and shame-wracked poor decision-making. Despite what they say, there's really nothing wrong, per se, with a novelist explicitly telling rather than showing -- but it's all in the telling. For almost 240 of the 280 pages of this book Roth lets Bucky's disaster unfold more or less on its own. There are frequent reminders of what's already going through Bucky's head: "He had never gotten over the shame of not being with them" (fighting in the war), for example, or how:
He was struck by how lives diverge and by how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstances. And where does God figure in this ? [...] For someone who had previously found in diligence and hard work the solution to all his problems, there was now much that was inexplicable to him about why what happens, happens as it does.
       It's obvious, too, that despite the appearance of picture-perfect romance the heavy seed of shame/guilt/doubt will sprout and affect Bucky's relationship with Marcia; from the first he does not see himself as worthy of Marcia (and her perfect family).
       Roth's blunt third act is only superficially powerful, his second-hand approach, now completely brought to the fore in Mesnikoff's dominating voice, deflating sad sack Bucky's tragedy and all the big questions it brings with it. Instead of truly confronting them head-on, Mesnikoff also readily provides an alternate version and answer, with Bucky relegated to has-been role, barely a life lesson left in him except from long, long ago.
       Nemesis begins rather slowly and deliberately, and plods on, like boring Bucky himself, for quite a while. The hysteria (and tragedy) that the polio epidemic caused -- and efforts by people like Bucky to maintain some sense of normalcy and calm -- are captured well, as is the Newark heat of that summer, and the Jewish neighborhood. Roth takes his time, and the build-up can seem very slow; Bucky, too, can seem too good to be true -- too obviously being set up for one hell of a fall. Still, it works well enough, Roth's confident if occasionally lazy prose consistently engaging. But the novel winds up taking that turn and jump -- over a whole quarter of a century. Roth makes it too easy for himself -- and the reader. The big questions are thrown out there, but then just quickly checked off. It works, but barely; it's certainly disappointing (redeemed only slightly by a fine retrospective closing scene.)
       Nemesis is worthwhile but puzzling, and certainly falls short of what it could have been.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 October 2010

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Nemesis: Reviews: Philip Roth: Other books by Philip Roth under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Philip Roth (1933-2018) wrote many highly acclaimed works and won numerous literary prizes.

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