Nemesis basically follows the pattern of the novels in Roth’s “America trilogy”: a narrator reminisces about a fellow working-class New Jerseyan guy he used to idealize, whose life has collapsed; it initially seems that Idealized Guy was destroyed by his interactions with a strong-willed but two-dimensional woman; Narrator Guy ultimately discovers that Idealized Guy’s fate was sealed by aspects of his character or values that go back to long before he met her. In this case, Idealized Guy is the courageous twenty-three-year-old gym teacher Bucky Cantor; Narrator Guy is his student Arnie Mesnikoff; 2-D woman is Bucky’s fiancée Marcia. The catastrophe seems to be Bucky’s decision to leave his job in Newark during the 1944 polio epidemic to work at a summer camp alongside Marcia: Bucky comes to believe that he had been an asymptomatic polio carrier and brought the disease to the camp. After falling ill himself, he breaks off his engagement and becomes a guilt-ridden recluse. The novel’s final scene is an encounter between Bucky and Arnie in 1971: Arnie, also disabled by polio, has led a less self-dramatizing life, marrying, having children, and becoming an architect specializing in barrier-free environments. He is hard-pressed to understand why Bucky clings so fiercely to his martyrdom. The story can be read as Arnie’s attempt to understand his childhood idol’s fall.
Mark McGurl recently suggested that late Roth can be understood in terms of existentialist thought, as it became fashionable in the late-1950s U.S. when Roth’s career was beginning; and that perspective is certainly relevant to Arnie’s argument with Bucky: Arnie tends to think that Bucky is guilty of a kind of mauvaise foi, abnegating the freedom and responsibility to choose the narrative he will make of his life. Roth, I would suggest, keeps the question open of whether Bucky has that kind of freedom or whether the facts of his upbringing more or less doomed him to an understanding of guilt, duty, and masculinity that made it impossible for him to interpret and respond to his illness any differently than he has. We are in the realm of Wharton and Dreiser and Fitzgerald, with the strong suggestion that character, as formed (or distorted) by specific imperatives of U.S. life, is destiny. More generally, Roth is partaking of the anti-transcendent tradition in American literature from Hawthorne to Egan: the seductions of the grandiose narrative are very great, this tradition tells us, but it will destroy your relations with others — you’d far better settle down and work for your family and community.
Now, posthumanist hipsters like you and me are exquisitely aware of the shortcomings of existentialist thought, of its universalizations, its voluntarism, its struggles to account for social change and sustained collective action. So it’s a kind of triumph on Coetzee’s part that he makes the existentialist approach look positively progressive (although, to be sure, the bar is low enough that he makes a pillar of Catholic conservatism like René Girard look progressive too). Because Coetzee, reading the novel’s title unironically, interprets Nemesis through a theory of tragedy that has no room for atheism and little space for society. Of Arnie, he writes, “A modern soul, Arnie has found ways of navigating a world beyond good and evil; Bucky, he feels, should have done the same.” But surely Arnie thinks Bucky has done serious evil to himself, to Marcia and her family, and to the community he has abandoned. The images of evil Arnie rejects are the melodrama of Bucky’s theology, in which “God was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two—a sick fuck and an evil genius,” and his morality, in which he is responsible for having infected dozens of children under his care. Arnie also seems to recognize evil in the shame that attends Bucky’s disability: “He could never show his withered arm and withered leg to anyone other than a doctor or, when she was living, his grandmother.”
Wrestling with the question of what could have brought him to such a tragic pass, Arnie speculates on the strengths and weaknesses of Bucky’s character:
He was largely a humorless person . . . someone instead haunted by an exacerbated sense of duty but little force of mind, and for that he had paid a high price in assigning the gravest meaning to his story, one that, intensifying over time, perniciously magnified his misfortune . . . Nothing he does matches the ideal in him. He never knows where his responsibility ends.This sort of meditation, considering how a noble person encountered the very circumstances in which his strengths become destructive forces, is a pretty routine approach to understanding tragedy, one that respects the tragic hero while grieving the ironic fate that s/he has met with. But Coetzee, possessed of an eccentric understanding of classical tragedy, is having none of it—Bucky’s realist perspective is, to him, a denial not only of “good and evil” but of humanity:
God may indeed be incomprehensible, as Marcia says. Nonetheless, someone who tries to grasp God’s mysterious designs at least takes humanity, and the reach of human understanding, seriously; whereas someone who treats the divine mystery as just another name for chance does not. What Arnie is unwilling to see—or at least unwilling to respect—is first the force of Bucky’s Why? (“this maniac of the why,” he calls him) and then the nature of Bucky’s No!, which, pigheaded, self-defeating, and absurd though it may be, nevertheless keeps an ideal of human dignity alive in the face of fate, Nemesis, the gods, God.
Okay, Jack. A guy witnesses catastrophe and discovers that life is wickedly unjust. Unsurprisingly, he asks Why? and rails at God. Simultaneously, determined to find someone culpable for the depredations of illness and premature deaths, he blames himself and spends decades scapegoating himself for his and others’ misfortunes. And the friend who tries to “get him to see himself as something more than his deficiencies and begin to liquidate his shame” is denying human dignity? There’s something odd going on here, something more than the rejection of the old existential insight that ya gotta make your own meaning of life. Maybe it’s just religious mania, or a tendency to empathize with the lone grandiose antihero. But that “dignity” thing, in light of Bucky’s condition, bothers me. See, another newspaper reviewer (whose review I can’t track down) endorsed Bucky’s decision on the grounds that surely no man would want to become so dependent upon his wife as the crippled Bucky would in a marriage to Marcia. As if most able-bodied guys born in 1921 were not pretty dependent upon their wives already; as if there were people who led autonomous lives with no dependency. This idea that Bucky’s withdrawal from human connection is somehow ennobling suggests a very Libertarian concept of “dignity.”
Coetzee’s finding an ideal of human dignity in the defiant self-pity that Kundera would call litost is particularly sinister under these circumstances. Because what Bucky has been deprived of, leading him to insist that Marcia cannot possibly know her own mind when she insists she still wants to marry him, is his old life as a strong, able-bodied authority figure in a sunny homosocial environment. The novel’s final scene is a flashback to Bucky’s demonstrating his skill with the javelin to the schoolchildren under his care: it’s a celebration of primal muscularity worthy of Leni Riefenstahl, and Arnie (with the verbal awkwardness Roth gives him whenever he reaches for the sublime) quite explicitly recalls the event as a masculine ritual: “Through him, we boys had left the little story of the neighborhood and entered the historical saga of our ancient gender.” The scene perfectly illustrates the ideal in the face of which disability is incompatible with potency, community, and masculinity. It also illustrates another of Roth’s favorite themes, grandiose misidentification. From The Ghost Writer, in which Zuckerman points out that the Jews who lived through the war in Newark cannot claim the moral authority of the Holocaust (“We were not the victims of that crime!”) to I Married a Communist, in which he realizes that Murray has done a lot more good for humanity on the school board than has Ira fighting for world Communism, we see people who bitterly pit themselves against Evil in the service of what turns out to be a false ideal of solidarity, one that actually militates against productive relationships with others. Bucky takes the problem to an extreme in that his false ideal creates an imaginary from which he has abjected and scapegoated himself.
Roth’s perspective may not be a radical one, but in this time and place, I think taking a stand against the lone defiant hero and the myths that support him is useful. For as Ron Silliman points out,
The isolato in American literature is little more than a tribune for the most imperial and corporate of impulses . . . If you are responsible to no one, you are in the exact same position that capital and profit play in the world economy. What might be noble in such attempts at outsider independence – a resistance to being used by others for purposes that one might find repellant – nonetheless reminds me of the flaw at the heart of Timothy Leary’s old slogan: Tune in, turn on, drop out. There simply is no “out.” It’s as identifiable a location in the game of life as any other. We are all of us on this planet together. You can choose which side you are on, but there is no “nobody’s side” to pick. That one already belongs to Mr. Murdoch, the Koch brothers & their buds.The narrative of the righteous outsider, however tormented he may be, really doesn’t keep human dignity alive — if one concedes that there are other humans than oneself.