Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nemesis by Philip Roth ****

Back in high school or maybe during a summer break from college, I wrote a play. As only a teenager can, I was suffering from unrequited love and this was my self-assigned therapy. The play - I believe I still have a copy in a box of keepsakes in the garage, along with the newspaper story with a picture of me winning my only wrestling match and another about my more successful venture in competitive math - was called Irrational Irreversible. It had an ensemble cast of failed relationships - all the characters shared a single fatal flaw - all refused the accept their break up and all were uniformly miserable as a result.

While there were no happy endings for any of the characters, the therapy was a success and I moved on to new loves and never again got stuck wishing the past could be changed.

Philip Roth's new novel Nemesis reminds my of my play and I hope the therapy is a successful for Philip Roth and his readers. The story is about the Polio epidemic in Newark, NJ in 1944 (and mentions the hospital where I was born). Eugene 'Bucky' Cantor was a playground supervisor that summer, a hyper-responsible playground supervisor. When the epidemic hit his playground, he felt personally responsible.

Bucky's fatal flaw is illustrated in his impeccable logic. This epidemic is too awful to be caused by God, so I don't believe in God. I've done everything I could do to prevent the epidemic, but it came anyway. QED - therefore, it's all my fault. As in the Irrational Irreversible, Bucky never changes - nothing brings acceptance. Roth's brilliant writing and characterization pushes Bucky in to deeper and deeper depths of misery, but nothing brings redemption.

And just in case, you don't get the message, the book ends with a little sermonette.
The guilt in someone like Bucky may seem absurd but, in fact, is unavoidable.
P.S. BTW, I have one of those Polio Pioneer cards.

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