Philip Roth was an author unknown to me (shame on me!) until this summer. Over the past several years I’ve taken it upon myself to read my daughter’s high school novel-reading assignments so that we can stay current (in an aspect where a parent is permitted to do so). Her school requires summer reading and this year Roth’s novel Nemesis was on the roster. As a recent book, it is unusual in being assigned before the test of time has rendered its verdict. Set during a fictionalized polio outbreak in Newark in 1944, Nemesis follows the fortunes of Bucky Cantor, a Jewish physical education teacher in charge of a summer playground program in Newark. As his kids begin to fall to the disease, the protagonist flees to the Poconos to be with his fiancée at a Jewish summer camp. As the situation deteriorates, Bucky questions God’s role in the world of disease and in the war that continues to rage in Europe and the Pacific.
It is the classic issue of theodicy. Having been raised in a tradition that espouses God’s goodness, the protagonist has to face the death and disabling of children by a disease for which there is no cure (at the time). The issue of God’s role in the disaster is a recurring theme throughout the book. In the final chapter when the atheist narrator—himself a victim of polio and one of Bucky’s former students—questions Cantor about his beliefs, Bucky holds onto a dogged insistence that blame must be ascribed. His student opines: “it’s a medical enigma… His [Bucky’s] conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two—a sick f**k and an evil genius.” That statement gave me pause. Traditionally theodicy assumes the goodness of God and tries to bend the facts to fit the premise. Here God is in the dock and all interpretations are permitted in cross-examination.
The angst of dealing with the concept of omnipotence is real enough. In this Tea-Party world where selfish personal aggrandizement is seen as divine prerogative while children starve in misery and die painfully on an hourly basis, very real questions should be asked. Instead, most people assume the religion they have been taught is correct: often the facts of history are distorted to make such a belief match pre-decided outcomes. God is good as long as I get my share.
Reviews of Nemesis have been mixed, but Roth does a powerful job in his final chapter of this novel. The action is almost as predictable as the heat of summer, but the real substance, as usual, lies in the interpretation of the events. When God is brought into the equation, the temperature is sure to rise even further.