Monday 4 October 2010

'the tyranny of contingency'

by Philip Roth

Before the title page of Roth's books the list of his previous novels isn't given chronologically but grouped into narrative approach. There are the Zuckerman books beginning with The Ghost Writer and ending with the recent Exit Ghost, the concupiscent Kepesh books, even 'Roth' books like Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America. Roth's prolific output of short novels recently are gathered together as Nemeses: Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling now joined by the novel that gives the collection its thematic title. As an exploration of mortality and chance, each of these short novels on their own has felt a little underwhelming to a committed Roth fan like myself but then gained far more when seen as part of a larger whole. With this final novel in the series I wondered whether they might be a larger pay-off or perhaps a tying together of themes and ideas. On a first reading it doesn't really feel that way, this is another standalone tale that continues Roth's study of death and the only surprise (although by now it shouldn't be) is that such a fundamental topic, and the approach taken with this book, should yield a story that for all its strengths still manages to underwhelm ever so slightly. I'll come to the reasons why that might be later but let us first look at the set-up.

Roth's alternative history, The Plot Against America, was set in his own native Weequahic section of Newark during the 1940's, a time and place he returns to here with a no-less imagined polio outbreak during the stifling summer of 1944 ('...that decade when it seemed that the greatest menaces on earth were war, the atomic bomb and polio'). This isn't a 'Roth' book however, it is narrated by Arnie Mesnikoff, a child at the time of the outbreak, looking back from the relative safety of 1971. The period before the development of a vaccine and before even a clear understanding of how the virus was transmitted was one of fear, rumour and suspicion. In this climate we meet Bucky Cantor, playground director for Chancellor Avenue School (for those, like me, not sure what that job is, it seems that during the holidays from school, children would play ball, jump rope and generally run themselves around in the school's playground under the watchful eye of the playground director).
He stood slightly under five feet five inches tall, and though he was a superior athlete and strong competitor, his height, combined with his poor vision, had prevented him from playing college-level football, baseball, or basketball and restricted his intercollegiate sports activity to throwing the javelin and lifting weights... His was the cast-iron, wear-resistant, strikingly bold face of a sturdy young man you could rely on.
That poor eyesight has kept him at home whilst friends and others his age are away fighting in Europe and the Pacific, something for which he feels huge guilt, which is the novel's major theme (developed more specifically as survivor's guilt). On the home front however he is a hero to the children he looks after and finds himself on the frontline when polio first strikes and then quickly develops into an epidemic. Through the playground scenes we here the chants of girls jumping rope, an alphabetised chorus going through various names and a little like the plague-associated Ring a Ring o' Roses sounding like a deathly roll call as one after another of the children falls prey to the virus. Bucky's own playground favourite, Alan Michaels, is dead within 72 hours and in a touching scene with his father, the two men struggle to find meaning in the death of such a wonderful child.
"Everything he did, he did it right the first time. And always happy. Always with a joke. So why did he die? Where is the fairness in that?"
"There is none," Mr. Cantor said.
"You do only the right thing, the right thing and the right thing and the right thing, going back all the way. You try to be a thoughtful person, a reasonable person, an accommodating person, and then this happens. Where is the sense in life?"
"It doesn't seem to have any," Mr. Cantor answered.
At the same rate with which the virus spreads, and more and more children fall victim to its most extreme conclusion, grows fear. Fear, which had driven many of the Jewish neighbourhood's residents from Europe in the first place, fear which threatens to close the playgrounds and send children into hiding or exile, fear which Bucky is advised to 'foster less' of by his girlfriend's father, the calming Dr Steinberg, for "Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us." But the relentlessness of the virus' march and the way in which this forces Bucky to confront the blocked emotions surrounding his own mother's death in childbirth lead to perhaps the only natural reaction: to blame God. When his girlfriend pleads with him to leave Newark and join her at summer camp in the Pocono Mountains he eventually relents, deserting the quietened playgrounds of Newark, adding further to his guilt.

'Ensconced in this noisy funhouse of a summer camp', which at night becomes an Eden-like idyll where he and Marcia can make love without fear of discovery Bucky is still tormented by 'the force of circumstance', the random events or smallest choices that can cause paths to diverge so wildly. For who decides each lot, who fights abroad or stays at home, who catches or carries a virus? The only surety: '...what he no longer had was a conscience he could live with.' For a man whose whole life perhaps has been clouded by guilt Bucky comes to the only conclusion he is capable of when the first case of polio occurs at the summer camp.
All at once he heard a loud shriek. It was the shriek of the woman downstairs from the Michaels family, terrified that her child would catch polio and die. Only he didn't just hear the shriek - he was the shriek.
In the novel's final section we fully engage with the adult narrator as he meets the now elderly Mr. Cantor and converses with him about what happened next. Bucky's reaction to God is not so much one of rejection but vilification, casting him not as the omnipotent holy trinity but an evil double act 'a sick fuck, and an evil genius.' Arnie is slightly more charitable.
Sometime you're lucky and sometimes you're not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance - the tyranny of contingency - is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.
So chance, guilt, cowardice, and honour are some of the major themes that crop up and we learn how much Bucky's life has been defined by this one summer, his life's potential altered by that combination of chance and decision, and crucially the role in which he casts himself. For the nemesis of the title could be the virus itself or the man at the novel's centre and one begins to wonder whether what these short novels have made clear is that man is his own worst enemy.

So having written all of that, and you now reading it, why the reservations? Why am I not immediately satisfied by these recent reads? The odd thing is that the process of writing this review has made me realise that the book is better than I thought it was initially, but that doesn't take away from the fact that the experience of reading it and the feelings it raised at the time were a little low-key. I started this book after becoming mired in another and thinking that the always well-crafted prose of Roth's would be my literary solvent to loosen things up a little. You do feel immediately comfortable in the opening pages; the ease with which he sets the scene, the economy of language, the control of period, place and persons shouldn't be underestimated. But there is a kind of professional detachment; that control over the material that in other books of his is broken down by the rage, or the sex, or the authorial play. Only occasionally did the fear feel palpable. Only occasionally did I feel Bucky really wrestling with himself. Part of this might be Roth's choice of narrator who despite his own, late-revealed back story remains a bit of a non-character, but I think the main reason might be the character of Bucky himself. The 'sturdy' man mentioned earlier as a kind of almost-hero is later described thus.

He was largely a humorless person, articulate enough but with barely a trace of wit, who never in his life had spoken satirically or with irony, who rarely cracked a joke or spoke in jest.

There is never really enough there to ignite Bucky in the reader's imagination. Like a lot of Roth's characters he is a man who seems to be decent, who tries to make the right decision and ends up a victim of circumstance. The thrill of novels like American Pastoral, Sabbath's Theatre or I Married A Communist was to see how their male protagonists took a stand and raged against their obstacles (as well of course as having moments of doubt, introspection and anguish). Bucky Cantor has flashes but remains a far more passive aggressor and it might be this that prevented me, despite the tragedy, from really engaging with him fully.


Tom C 4 October 2010 at 08:08  

A very informative review - thanks. Like you I am a Roth fan, and rate The Human Stain as perhaps his best novel to date. Its interesting to see that you felt he was a little detached from this story as this does tend to be a feature of his writing sometimes. I am not sure that I will read this one as I tend to find books about the suffering of children just too harrowing. However, the fact that its written by PR may eventually tempt me in order to satisfy my completist tendency.

Anonymous,  4 October 2010 at 21:30  

I to like Roth ,was bit let down bym the Humbling last year when I read it this seems a return to form and seems to be dealing with a time and area has dealt with before great review william ,all the best stu

Anonymous,  4 October 2010 at 23:00  

Interesting -- unlike you, I much prefer Roth's novels when he is at a distance from his subject and represses his "rage". I haven't seen this one yet, but I look forward to it very much. I appreciate your description of what you found lacking -- I suspect I will find that the best part of the novel. I admit to liking the first three in this series for exactly that reason -- I won't claim it is Roth's best work, but I might.

William Rycroft 4 October 2010 at 23:11  

Thank you for the comments, Tom and Stu. I certainly think this book is better than The Humbling and well worth reading. I'm a confirmed fan of Roth and so would happily read anything by him eventually (a rather hilarious puffed up review at the weekend said that they would read Roth's fridge magnets if he bound them) but we all know that some books are better than others. As someone who read some of his biggest and best first I have enjoyed his recent short novels without being blown away by them. That detachment I mentioned might have been echoed slightly by Bonnie Greer on the Review Show when she said that reading this book was like listening to a voice in a closed room. My worry when I see Roth in his rural hideaway is that that isolation might just be having an effect on the writing itself. Writers have always written in isolation but not necessarily lived so. I hope he's got at least one more 'big' book in him but with nothing written since this apparently and this completed over a year ago I don't know. Perhaps he's waiting for the biggie to come.

William Rycroft 4 October 2010 at 23:17  

Oh, hello Kevin, you must have left your comment when I was typing my reply above. Thanks for your view, very interested in your perspective. I have a sneaking suspicion that when I come to read Roth's books again in the future, as I surely will, I will be impressed more and more by the artistry of these books after the disappointment that they aren't furious, fun or sexy has abated. It's important to remember that when looking at Roth you're often saying that a book of his isn't bad as such, just less brilliant than some others.

jacqui (@jacquiwine),  10 September 2012 at 17:35  

Hi Will, Great review, very interesting. I've just finished this one. It's my first Roth (recommended by a couple of friends). I too felt a bit underwhelmed by it, despite the harrowing subject matter. Having read your review, I think you put your finger on it in the sense of detachment and the character of Bucky himself. I couldn't quite visualise Bucky in my mind (despite the description near the beginning). Reading the book, I felt as though I was skimming the surface, that there was a deeper, more powerful, (more emotional?) story to be told...Perhaps I should try another Roth at some point?

William Rycroft 10 September 2012 at 19:08  

Jacqui, I'm a big Roth fan so naturally I'd be horrified if your reading of him started and ended with this novel. There's so much better out there! An early example of his skill would be The Ghost Writer in which we first meet his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, you'll find his rage in American Pastoral (and the other two books in that 'trilogy' I Married A Communist and The Human Stain), and his exuberant filthiness in Sabbath's Theatre. Let me know if you have any specific 'wants' I could go on about him all day!

Jacqui (@jacquiwine),  12 September 2012 at 09:10  

Thanks Will. I'm relieved to hear that! I do want to read a couple of his other novels at some point...I think I'll try American Pastoral or The Human Stain.

William Rycroft 12 September 2012 at 09:14  

In that case I would definitely recommend American Pastoral, one of my favourite books.

Max Cairnduff 16 September 2013 at 14:10  

Hey Will,

Quick question on an old review. Do you think you need to read the other Nemesis novels to get the most from this one, or would it work as a pure stand-alone? I ask as this tempts me more than some of the others do.

William Rycroft 16 September 2013 at 16:50  

You could definitely read this on its own Max, the other novels are only connected to it in the vaguest sense and on reflection this feels like the strongest of the lot anyway.

Hope that helps.

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