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
Philip Roth may have officially put down his pen, but his final years of writing were incredibly productive. Between 2006 and 2010, Roth wrote with a palpable urgency, releasing a new novel each year. Now, the Library of America’s release of these four books—Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and Nemesis (2010)—as a single volume (last in the nine-volume complete works) with annotations by Roth offers an opportunity to revisit what amounted to—though we didn’t know it at the time—the author’s parting words. And to imbibe Nemeses: Short Novels as the single reading experience that Roth seems to have intended, as the coda to an incredible body of literary work.
Next to convention-shattering books like Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and masterworks like American Pastoral (1997), the books in Nemeses are unquestionably melancholy and spare.
“The four Nemeses novels are lesser additions to the Roth canon,” wrote J.M. Coetzee in the New York Review of Books. “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.” In Commentary, Sam Sacks expressed similar sentiments, noting: “The only real presence in these grim, portentous books is Roth himself, old and ceaselessly self-regarding—an important writer attempting to cap his career by the harsh and confining terms he has set throughout his life.”
Yet perhaps my generation, who came of age by the time most of Roth’s works had been written, is better situated to see the merits in Roth’s late-late style. The Nemeses books are not Roth’s most brilliant, but they are instructive if understood as the work of an author meditating on what it means to be nearing the end of life, and perhaps more important, the end of writing.
Roth anticipated his own current predicament in early works. In The Ghost Writer (1979), the young, wide-eyed Nathan Zuckerman is surprised to find that his aging literary idol, E.I. Lonoff, can only talk about how writing has become a kind of curse. As Lonoff’s wife is cooking in the kitchen, Zuckerman thinks: “The Mixmaster whirled and the fire popped and the wind blew and the trees groaned while I tried, at twenty-three, to think of how to dispel his gloom.” At 23, I too think of how to dispel Roth’s gloom, even though I understand that what Roth wants me—us—to do is sit with it.
The stories in Nemeses will be somewhat familiar to any Roth reader, although they differ in crucial ways—ways that hint at their finality. To take one example, Marcus Messner, the young protagonist of Indignation (2008), is a hardworking youth growing up in the Jewish part of Newark during the 1950s. Smothered by his parents, Marcus seeks freedom at Winesburg College (in Sherwood Anderson’s fictional Ohio town) and hopes that by working hard he will avoid being drafted into the Korean War. A naive son of Newark struggling with overbearing parents and the onset of adulthood, Marcus is a natural successor to the infamous Alexander Portnoy—a parallel to which Roth directs his readers.
Working in his parents’ butcher shop over the summer, Marcus handles meat in a way that Roth describes rather graphically: “It was my job not just to pluck the chickens but to eviscerate them,” Marcus explains. “You slit the ass open a little bit and you stick your hand up and grab the viscera and you pull them out”—a description that threw me right back to one of the most vivid scenes of Portnoy’s Complaint, in which Portnoy violates a liver behind a billboard.
But this is repetition with a difference. Whereas Portnoy’s liver remains the medley of semen and liver juice to which Portnoy condemns it, the blood oozing from Marcus’ fowl foreshadows the nightmarish ending that befalls him. Roth hints at his earlier work only to show us that he’s changed his focus: Masturbation can be hilarious, but death offers little in the way of comic relief.
Similarly, The Humbling (2009), which tells the story of an actor named Simon Axler who becomes suicidal after he “loses his magic” in the first line of the book, is often reminiscent of Roth’s 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater. When Mickey Sabbath, a puppeteer who loses his beloved Indecent Puppet Theater and, later, his sexual partner-in-crime to cancer, he is propelled, like Axler, to contemplate suicide. But unlike Sabbath, who finds that he’d rather embrace the “nasty side of existence” than end his life altogether, Axler discovers no such comfort and successfully commits the act that Sabbath could not. That caustic yet poetic conclusion to Sabbath’s Theater—“And he couldn’t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here”—is in some ways undermined by Axler’s effective suicide. As Pegeen, the woman with whom Axler has a brief affair, tells him, “This is the end.” And here, there’s no mistaking that.
This sense that Roth is gesturing to and yet turning away from his earlier work is in part what’s so fascinating about Nemeses. Is Roth denouncing the ideas put forth in his earlier work or merely complicating them? What is clear is that Roth’s turn toward the subject of mortality was accompanied by an abandonment of earlier, more parochial, concerns. In the 30th-anniversary edition of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Roth’s first book, he remarked of his younger self:
It amazed him that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan—about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success.
Indeed, Roth’s works have primarily grappled with “the rites and taboos” of the Jews. His protagonists—almost always Jewish, male, and American—circle around the same anxieties: that as Jews, they’re too bound by guilt to enjoy the fruits of the earth; that as men, they’re not sexually or emotionally adequate; and that as Americans, their personal experiences hinder them from feeling patriotic.
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.”
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 , 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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