The BEST: Nemesis

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The BEST: Nemesis by Philip Roth
Reviewed by Na’amit Sturm Nagel

Summary: In Nemesis Philip Roth writes about the past, though one feels that he is foreseeing the future. As with most of Roth’s writing, the novel takes place in Newark, in this case depicting the polio outbreak of 1944. Bucky Cantor, the twenty-three year-old at the center of the tragedy, is an impressive playground director with his whole life ahead of him: “His was the cast-iron, wear-resistant, strikingly bold face of a sturdy young man you could rely on.” He is also one of the few genuinely admirable heroes in Roth’s fiction, instead of the author’s more typical anti-heroes.

The 2010 novel is about the lives that polio takes and destroys, but it is even more about the chaos wrought by the fear the illness breeds. Polio is at its most devastating when it kills individuals, yet Roth is more interested in how it maims relationships and cripples the ability of the community to support one another. Roth, always interested in uncovering humanity’s darker tendencies, shows us a mirror: when the world is threatened, people turn inwards and think only about themselves. 

Why This Is The BEST (Especially Now)?

In the past few weeks, I have heard many people make uplifting predictions such as, “Crises like these always bring out the best in people,” or “Moments like this really bind us together.” All I could think when looking at the smiling faces is, “You clearly have not read Philip Roth’s Nemesis.

Whenever readers critique Roth’s pessimistic perspective, I think about how his characters remind me of pieces of who I am and, more so, who I do not wish to become. As such, Nemesis best fits these uncertain times. We are maybe months, weeks, or even days away from destroying so much of our societal fabric. The title of Nemesis is a warning: Is the disease really the enemy in the book, or in times of uncertainty, are we the ones who become our own worst enemies?

Na’amit Sturm Nagel is an English Teacher at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, California, and the Associate Director of The Shalhevet Institute.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on March 19, 2020]

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