Lucy and Todd

Nemesis – Philip Roth

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on January 27, 2012 at 3:19 pm

The thing about Roth is he’s no stylist, but he has so much to say (making him the exact opposite of D.H. Lawrence). He has claimed Newark as his own, and I like hearing about it. But the disappointments for Roth-readers are troubling. The quality of his output is a bit like Woody Allen’s – some efforts rise from the bottom of the barrel, while others stink beneath.

Portnoy’s Complaint is fabulously witty and wild – it may be structurally contorted but it’s so full of funny stuff, important stuff, you forgive its foibles (all that ‘Monkeying’ around in the second half of the book). Both The Plot Against America and I Married a Communist, though not the quintessential expression of 20th-century alarm that Portnoy is, manage to pull something off – they’re fierce and rich. Roth’s great at amassing a sheer volume of material. Patrimony, though short, is packed with purpose: an almost flawless gem.

But long ago I took umbrage against The Breast (too full of misogynistic distaste to be easily stomached), and The Human Stain makes almost no sense to me at all. Nemesis was the most recent let-down. For me the only good line in this po-faced polio puppet-show comes in the description of the sporty hero, dull Mr. Cantor, as ‘this maniac of the why’ (with its pun on the “Y”): the fellow is both sporty, and mystified by what happened to him. But the mystification is taken to such extremes, the novel descends into melodrama. Does anyone really spend their WHOLE life wondering about something?

Rather than polio, the novel’s real perplexity seems to be about the disease of SPORT, which has become America’s biggest (and weirdest) fixation – one reflected and, I think, supported by many American novelists. There’s no escaping sport if you’re there. Americans talk about sports, watch them, joke about them, perform them, and force their children to do them too, non-stop! Presidents come and go, leaving their fitness regime behind in their wake: the image of Bush on his bike, Clinton jogging, Obama playing basketball. Americans have pretty much given up thinking about anything but sport, and consider this fanaticism healthy, if not blameless! Any pangs of conscience they might have as a nation are daily obliterated by this collective mesmerism.

The automatic assumption that there’s some kind of virtue or glory in keeping physically fit is surely the height of inanity, the height of decadence (in the sense of fall-of-the-Roman-empire decadence: essentially, DECAY). Sports are a leveller, sure, a unifier, something everybody can participate in and agree on. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it’s not like flexing those muscles, or watching somebody else flex one, will make the world a nicer place. It doesn’t stop the bombing, the shooting, the pollution, the general American insanity about abortion, foreigners, history, religion, socialism, and the heartless American health insurance system. It doesn’t make up for the lack of reparation to Native Americans and African Americans for systematic genocide, nor help the poor, the sick, and women.

Aw, never mind all that, let’s just watch the BALL GAME!



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