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2.10.10

Philip Roth's Nemeses: Short Novels

Christopher Tayler and Matt Thorne examine Roth's Nemesis alongside his other late work
Philip Roth's Nemeses: Short Novels
In a review of Philip Roth's most recent novel, Nemesis, Christopher Tayler of The Guardian notices an interesting development:
Roth's fifth novel in as many years comes with a reorganised "Books By Philip Roth" page. Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and The Humbling have been plucked from their old home under 'Other Books' and assigned, along with Nemesis, to 'Nemeses: Short Novels'. Perhaps these four books are now a quartet, to be published in single volume down the line. If so, they make a harsh and challenging one. Everyman, a stark, ferociously controlled account of the life and death of an anonymous New York ad man, with an emphasis on the death part, is difficult to fault. Indignation and The Humbling, on the other hand, are jaggedly assembled, red herring-littered books, held together mostly by Roth's buttonholing intensity. "The omnipotence of caprice. The likelihood of reversal. Yes, the unpredictable reversal and its power," a character rants in The Humbling (which was reviewed, a bit unfairly, as an exhibition of Harold Brodkey-like sexual grandiloquence). Individuals being destroyed by a cosmic caprice to which their errors of judgment are merely a garnish: this seems to be the tragic model in these two books. [Read more]

Matt Thorne also reviews Roth's Nemesis for the Independent:
For some time now, Philip Roth has been tidying up his past publications page, shuffling his previous books into five main categories: Zuckerman books (novels about his novelist protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman); Roth books (novels about Philip Roth himself); Kepesh books (novels about his academic protagonist, David Kepesh); Miscellany (non-fiction-ish books about writing) and a vaguer category of "Other Books". With Nemesis, he has introduced a new category, "Nemeses: Short Novels", into which he has shuffled three books (Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling) previously placed in the "other" group.

Roth has described these as "cataclysmic" books, in which "you don't die, but everyone else does." But, revealing the arbitrariness of the distinction, he has also suggested that two other recent novels – Exit Ghost (a Zuckerman book) and The Plot Against America (a mere "other book") – would also fit this category. Adding to the confusion, Nemesis, which he describes as a short novel, is - at 280 pages - of greater length than many of his regularly-sized books.

The four Nemeses books do have thematic connections, and anyone who has read Indignation will probably guess the narrative surprise in this latest. They also have a stylistic link, often found in late works: the prose is utterly shorn of any authorial flourish. They represent a tailing-off of the stylistic brio that has marked every novel by Roth since Sabbath's Theatre reminded everyone of the scale of his talents.

Nemesis has a distinctly unpromising set-up. The bulk of the novel takes place in the summer of 1944, and concerns a sporty man, Bucky Cantor, who has become a playground director in Newark, New Jersey. [Read more]

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