Since Philip Roth has lately been publishing new work at a rapid rate, and since nothing immediately suggests this pace will slacken, it is probably not wise to make generalizations about what may be the "late" stage of his career. He may yet produce much more new fiction, perhaps returning to longer novels, perhaps with yet another "major" novel of the sort The Plot Against America was widely regarded to be. Still, the short novels Roth has now given the collective designation "Nemeses: Short Novels," which includes Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and Nemesis, at the least seem to have been written expressly as a series of short novels that invite reflection both on the possible connections and correspondences among them and on their status as works of, perhaps, Roth's later years as a writer.
The relative brevity of these books has struck many reviewers as including a shift in tone, even for some a loss of the energy and audacity we associate with "classic" Roth. It is certainly the case that these four short novels are absent the irreverence and comedic iconoclasm of works like Portnoy's Complaint (itself not a particularly long book) and Sabbath's Theater. On the other hand, they don't really lack the confrontational attitude toward existence to be found in Roth's previous fiction, their protagonists' ability to live comfortably in their own behavior, their fundamental assertions of self. The unnamed protagonist of Everyman, Marcus Messner of Indignation, Simon Axler of The Humbling, and Bucky Cantor of Nemesis all resist the external constraints they perceive to be pressing on them, just as do Alexander Portnoy, Mickey Sabbath, or David Kepesh. But these characters find themselves struggling more directly and immediately with mortality itself, and thus quite possibly the shorter form and less comedically pointed approach of the "Nemeses" books is entirely deliberate, Roth's effort to characterize this struggle in a more appropriately sober tone.
Indeed, perhaps the more appropriate collective title for the four books might have been the title of the third, since the process of aging and/or the prospect of impending death are portrayed in all of them as a kind of "humbling," although in The Humbling itself, Simon Axler is also humbled more specifically by his failing powers as an actor and by his sexual misadventure with a woman even more self-centered than he is. "Everyman" is humbled by his helplessness at the mercy of his failing body, while Bucky Cantor is humbled even more cruelly by the random actions of nature, struck down at an early age by polio. Marcus Messner is notable for his refusal to be humbled by the authority figure who has that goal in mind, but ultimately he also is subject to the subsequent humbling of an early death.
It is tempting to conclude that these four novels reflect Roth's own growing sense of being humbled by increasing age and infirmity, and of death as the final nemesis, but of course this could just as easily be an instance of the biographical fallacy, the assumption that a writer's work is a direct translation from episodes in his/her life, or in Roth's case, at least that his most recent books are more concerned with such ultimate questions than any of his earlier ones. Then again, Roth's fiction is notorious for suggesting parallels with his life, for presumably drawing on his own experience in ways that perhaps most radically blurs the boundaries between life and literature among all postwar American writers. One could say that much of Roth's work makes discerning the former in the latter a mostly hopeless task, but also perhaps trying to separate the two beside the point.
While none of the Nemeses books explores these boundaries as deliberately as Operation Shylock, The Facts, or even the Zuckerman books, they all do share the preoccupation with the historical Newark of Roth's childhood and continue to model characters and events on Roth's family members, particularly his father, and his own experiences as a boy and younger man. Everyman, which seems to me the weakest of these four books, is a rather conventional "autobiographical novel" that draws on the circumstances of Roth's life, in this case especially his medical history and, loosely, his relationship with his brother, but is otherwise unremarkable in the way it fictionalizes it's author's experiences without insisting on the connections. The Humbling would seem to be the least autobiographical work of this quartet, although again the portrait of an aging artist unhappy with his fading powers might be taken as a kind of self-examination, and the protagonist's vexed relationship with the femme fatale could easily enough be seen as a send-up of Roth's own image as both a writer and a man troubled by a dubious history with women. In this way The Humbling, not obviously based on the writer's life, is actually a more resonant example of Roth's aesthetic appropriation of "real life" than the more directly autobiographical Everyman, which attempts to invest its fairly routine story with additional significance simply through associating the protagonist with the allegorical figure named in the title
Indignation is, in my opinion, the most resonant of these four novels, the one most likely to stand among Roth's best books, especially as a shorter work that could serve future readers as an introduction to Roth. It both inhabits the autobiographical gray area and provocatively exploits this strategy by focusing on a protagonist who apparently has much in common with the young Philip Roth but then representing the protagonist as the posthumous narrator of his story. This is explained (barely) by projecting Private Marcus Messner's account as the final activity of his dying brain upon his mortal wound as a soldier in the Korean War, not long after the events narrated as Indignation, but the ultimate chapter relating this occurrence raises more questions than it answers: How did the narrator of this chapter gain access to Pvt. Messner's fading brainwaves? If this narrator is assumed to be Philip Roth, does this make Indignation finally a metafiction, the story of Roth telling us the story of the Roth stand-in Messner, only further obscuring the divide between the experiences on which the novel might be based and the fiction Roth has made of them?
As Jonathan Rosen points out, Indignation is "one of Roth's counter-life books, where the author seems to be confronting what might have happened had things gone just a little differently for him." And Marcus Messner has much in common with other Roth characters--not just Neil Klugman of Goodbye, Columbus, Gabe Wallach of Letting Go, or Alexander Portnoy, but also Nathan Zuckerman in the original Zuckerman novellas and Mickey Sabbath, characters who, if not always expressing "indignation" per se, certainly maintain a healthy (or unhealthy) degree of skepticism and impertinence. While such characters don't always necessarily prosper in the wake of their audacities, they persevere, a chance denied to Marcus Messner due to his premature death. To the extent we must inevitably regard all of these characters as variations on Roth's own self-image, we might thus call Indignation a kind of autobiographical fantasy, a version of the egoist narrative in which the protagonist does not survive his impudence.
Nemesis differs from Indignation in that the impudence of its protagonist is both learned and earned. Bucky Cantor is not naturally egocentric or defiant. He is in fact an idealist who wants only to do good and believes that this attitude will be rewarded. When he is cruelly disabused of this notion and not only contracts polio but is convinced he has been the carrier of the virus that has killed many of his students, Bucky himself turns virulently against the God he believes has burdened him with both a broken body and a broken spirit. Although Bucky is seemingly justified in his rage--the novel depicts his undoing as an almost malicious act of fate--he allows this rage to destroy whatever chance he still has left to lead a meaningful life. When at the end of the novel its narrator tells a much older Bucky, "Don't be against yourself. There's enough cruelty in the world as it is. Don't make things worse by scapegoating yourself," we must surely conclude that Roth himself partly endorses this sentiment, but it's hard not to conclude as well that he shares Bucky's disabused view of God's creation as a randomly brutal place. God would indeed be a sadist had he in fact created such a place, and this is what Bucky still seems to believe, but one could just as easily conclude that Bucky's problem is that he does still believe in that God, with whom he is in perpetual battle, when his experience simply confirms that the world can be random and brutal.
The narrator's encounter with Bucky Cantor is part of a final chapter in which we learn that the narrator of Nemesis has been all along one of Bucky's former students. Although we have been given one brief hint earlier in the text that this might be the case (and this is reinforced by the fact that Bucky is often referred to as "Mr. Cantor"), it is possible that many readers will assume that the novel is narrated by a third-person narrator, perhaps similar to those narrating Everyman and The Humbling. Those readers have to some degree been tricked by another subtle manipulation of point of view, which should prompt such readers to reexamine their response to what has come before. Is Nemesis another autobiographical excursion after all, in this case with the Philip Roth stand-in as the narrator rather than the protagonist? How confident can we be of the account provided through this "as told to" strategy? Are we simultaneously to find the narrative of Bucky Cantor moving and Bucky himself pitiable and to agree with the narrator that Bucky overreacted?
These are questions readers will have to answer for themselves. Both Indignation and Nemesis belong to that by now long line of Roth's fictions that in experimenting with the permeability of "facts" and fiction and in constantly challenging readers' expectations, not always in an immediately obvious way, pose questions without final answers, including questions about the very "realism" on which they otherwise seem to depend.
May 23, 2011