Philip Roth's new novel, Nemesis, concerns an outbreak of polio in 1944 Newark, and the efforts of an earnest young playground director to steer his community's children through it. The book is part of the Nemeses collection, a quartet of short novels, unrelated by plot or character, published in the last four years. Nemesis has gotten some praise for its attention to craft, but some critics don't find the story compelling or thematically satisfying.
'For Completists Only' At Intelligent Life, Molly Young isolates a major problem with the book: "nearly everyone in 'Nemesis' is decent, which is unfortunate, because decent characters tend to be interesting only in the company of non-decent ones. Lacking these, the book plods listlessly, stripped of any kind of humour or lust." Young adds that occasionally there occurs "one of those beautiful Rothian sentences that a reader will want to recite aloud... but these sentences are painfully infrequent."
A Minor Work, In Two Senses J. M. Coetzee contends in The New York Review of Books that "Nemesis itself is not really large enough in conception... to do more than scratch the surface of the great questions it raises." He goes on to call the Nemeses books "minor," both because they are "lesser additions to the Roth canon" and because "their overall mood is subdued, regret-filled, melancholy: they are composed, as it were, in a minor key. One can read them with admiration for their craft, their intelligence, their seriousness; but nowhere does one feel that the creative flame is burning at white heat, or the author being stretched by his material."
Roth's as Sensitive as Ever Greil Marcus at the Barnes & Noble Review applauds the book's pervasive quality of "generosity, or affection, or love," saying that the author "not only follows his characters with empathy, as if absorbing their pain as he crafts it; in a way that speaks for the queer and implacable anonymity of the voice behind each of the books, Roth does not look down on his characters, he looks up to them."
An Un-Rothlike Book--And That's the Point At Slate, Michael Gorra argues that Bucky, the book's decent, self-denying protagonist, is "the necessary counterweight to all the impulses of the author's best work. He's Roth's road not taken, and without people like him to press against, there would be no Portnoy, no Zuckerman." Gorra concludes that "when you think about it, it makes sense that [Roth] saved the challenge of exploring a counterlife of deliberate self-limitation for the end."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.