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Philip Roth’s End

Reading his last novels, I longed to dispel Roth’s gloom until I realized he wants me to just sit with it

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Philip Roth’s defenders point to his later, more serious works to argue for his place in the canon. In truth, those books make clearer his weaknesses.

The protagonists of Nemeses are Jewish, male, and American, to be sure, but it is not these concerns that thwart them. They are not, like The Human Stain’s Coleman Silk, worried that the discovery of their true identity—in that case, a black man pretending to be a white Jew—will lead to their downfall, or like Sophie Portnoy, who was paralyzed with fear that her son would marry a non-Jew or eat non-kosher fries at the boardwalk. Marcus’ mother even tells him: “That old world is far, far away and everything in it long gone. … The three of us never lived like people in a ghetto, and we’re not starting now. We are Americans. Date anyone you want, marry anyone you want, do whatever you want with whoever you choose.”

This is a critical statement for a Roth character to make—one that we expect to fundamentally alter the way he understands the world. And yet it has no bearing on Marcus, because what concerns him is only his impending death sentence. Roth is no longer dealing with “tribal secrets”; more pressing matters have moved to the fore.

In Everyman (2006), the protagonist is so universal that he’s never even given a name. We hear about his Newark childhood, his failed marriages and shortcomings as a father, but the only remarkable part of his identity is his continually failing body: “He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success,” the narrator remarks. “But now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.”

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At the end of our lives, Roth suggests in Nemeses, we encounter a “humbling.” Whether it’s a futile search for sexual potency (Everyman), the waning of creative powers (The Humbling), or unexpected confrontations with death (Indignation and Nemesis), a person experiences a sense of helplessness in the face of larger forces. And it isn’t just mortality that leads one to meet his maker, but a complex intermingling of chance, destiny, and history. Although each of the characters runs away to what they think will be an escape, they only run further into sealing their fate.

In Nemesis (2010), Roth’s final work and the one that lends the series its name, Bucky Cantor is another strapping son of Newark, dedicated to teaching Jewish boys on the playground how to play sports. Although, unlike Marcus, Bucky is unable to participate in the war—in this case World War II—because of bad eyesight, when a case of polio begins to strike down the kids on the playground, he becomes a leader in the fight against it. The Sophoclean twist of the story, however, is that even after Bucky goes to summer camp to escape from the epidemic, it turns out that he is a carrier and is infecting the children. Roth brings this story back to Newark, but in this case it’s not the minutiae of where and to whom Bucky was born that matter, but rather where he fell within the merciless flow of history.

In Indignation, after an incident at Winesburg College in which the boys raid the women’s dormitories, the president of the college sums up some of the important lessons of Nemeses:

Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear. Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily—warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all … you can be as stupid as you like, can even give every sign of passionately wanting to be stupid, but history will catch you in the end.

This speech speaks not only to the central role of history but also to an important tension throughout Roth’s oeuvre: the relationship between sex and death. Whereas most of Roth’s characters spend their days being “kindled by underwear,” in Nemeses, Roth warns of the follies of doing so.

“Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death,” declares David Kepesh, the philandering professor of Roth’s 2001 novel, The Dying Animal—one of several in which the character appears. But while the ethos that sex can distract you from the realities of death works for characters like Kepesh and Sabbath, in Nemeses, Roth ceases to flirt with this idea. Everyman lives out the final years of his illness alone; Marcus never manages to have sex before he dies; Axler tries to ward off his depression by taking up an affair but is left only more bereft after Pegeen breaks up with him; and Bucky chooses to live out his life as a crippled polio victim rather than making his life work with his fiancée Marcia, who insists that she isn’t deterred by his illness. (In between Everyman and Indignation, Roth also published Exit, Ghost [2007], which is not part of Nemeses but which deals with the final goodbye to Roth’s favorite alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. In the book, Zuckerman is impotent and incapable of wooing the young woman about whom he fantasizes.)

As Marcus tells his story from a morphine-induced haze in a foxhole in Korea, Roth seems to warn the reader against relying too heavily on the storyteller, for he is mortal too. Nemeses’ foregrounding of “short novels” may indicate the author’s pessimism about the future of fiction’s readership. Whereas earlier Roth alter egos like Zuckerman and Peter Tarnopol are writers who contain the wisdom and self-awareness of Roth himself, the narrators in Nemeses are lacking in linguistic complexity and in the capacity for introspection. Their ineffectuality inevitably raises the question that all writers nearing the end must ask: Can language immortalize me? Or is death always final?

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Of the many things written about Roth since his announcement that he is done, this intelligent appreciation of the final novels in relation to the entire oeuvre resonates with me the most. Wonderful.

Nice unveiling. God, do we love our Roth. I have no doubt his words will live on, way past his and our long lives.

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Philip Roth’s End

Reading his last novels, I longed to dispel Roth’s gloom until I realized he wants me to just sit with it

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