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A polished, perfectly constructed novel.
on 12 October 2010
Many journalists have written off Roth's recent material. Those readers who follow such cues may already have missed the understated wit of 'Indignation'- hopefully they will be prepared to give 'Nemesis' a chance. They should. It's an absolute blinder.
In 'Nemesis', Roth transposes many of the ideas common to his work since 1995's 'Sabbath's Theatre'- creating a compendium of Rothian themes that functions as an outstanding novel in its own right. Playing with the death-fears behind his more recent works, Roth returns to the intersections of history and personal narrative that made his 90s 'American' trilogy so memorable. The results are dazzling.
We're back in the familiar territory of Weequahic, the Jewish suburb of Newark, New Jersey, introduced to a character whose simple belief in human progress and humanist perfection is tested by the strains of a polio epidemic. Bucky Cantor is a fascinating character, superficially bland yet all the more distinctive for it- Roth repeating his fascination with those rudely jolted awake from the American Dream (tm). The text's narrator, Arnold Mesnikoff, only reveals himself in the novel's concluding section- yet his life-narrative is set against Bucky's in a beautifully restrained fashion. The novel's final scene, without giving spoilers, is one of the most elegant and moving passages to be found in all Roth's fiction.
There's a lot in here- World War II, the loss of faith, the innocence of youth- but the prose style is clear, making even the most ambitious of topics merge seamlessly into the novel's structure. A step back from the vitriolic tragedy of 'The Humbling' and towards a more gently elegiac mode (first hinted at in 'Indignation'), 'Nemesis' is wholly unpretentious, deeply intelligent and unabashedly moving. It's Roth's best novel for a decade, and a great starting point for those late to his charms.