Setting the Scene in Philip Roth’s “Nemesis”

by Derek Neal

I recently read Philip Roth’s Nemesis, a novel that’s received renewed attention as it centers on a polio epidemic. This isn’t why I read it, although I’ll admit that reading about the slow build and then cascading avalanche of a virus, and the public’s nonchalance giving way to caution and then increased panic and hysteria, closely paralleled the events of early 2020. I suppose epidemics and our response to them always play out in a similar fashion. I picked the book off my shelf because I needed something to read—much like the setting of the novel, it’s summer vacation for me. My dad had given me the book some time before, and it had sat there, collecting dust on the shelf built into the low walls of my slope-ceilinged attic apartment. As a rule, I hate receiving books as gifts because I then feel an obligation to read them; instead, I prefer to choose and read a book in a more serendipitous fashion. It’s not something that can be forced. But if the giver of the book knows that their gift will go unread, possibly for years, but will then present itself to be read at the right moment, a book can be a great gift.

I took Nemesis to my family’s cottage, which sits at the end of an unpaved road and is situated steps from a small lake. A storm blew through and we promptly lost power. Not having TV, Wi-Fi, or many of the other distractions of modern life, I read Nemesis in a day or two and rediscovered the feeling of simultaneously racing through a book and trying to drag it out; when a novel is good—and Nemesis is a masterpiece in my estimation—the reading experience becomes so engrossing that it has to be artificially prolonged without losing the momentum of the story. Inevitably, this fails, you finish the book, and thankfully there are many more waiting for you.

After I finished Nemesis, I went back and reread the opening section again. There had been something enchanting about the first pages of the novel, and I wanted to understand how Roth had plunged us so deeply into the Newark of 1944. I later discovered that Nemesis had been Roth’s last novel, and in light of this knowledge it is not hard to imagine Roth reaching back into the depths of his memory to recreate the atmosphere of his childhood and a world long since forgotten, just one last time. Indeed, the novel’s tone has something of the fairy tale or the fable about it, as if we’ve gathered around a wizened old bard who’s going to tell us a tale he’s recounted many times before.

The novel begins with 12 pages of narration before we meet the hero of the story, the 23-year-old playground director named Bucky Cantor. It’s this 12-page section that I’d like to focus on. The first technique Roth employs is to continually use the first-person plural pronoun “we” to implicate the reader in the action of the story. Roth writes, “The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived. Over in the city’s southwestern corner, in the Jewish Weequahic section, we heard nothing about it, nor did we hear anything about the next dozen cases scattered singly throughout Newark in nearly every neighborhood but ours” (emphasis mine). Many of these “we’s” and “ours” could be replaced with “I” and “mine,” and perhaps many novelists would make this choice, focused on the singular, subjective experience over the communal one. This type of writing has its place, but in the context of an epidemic, where one’s actions clearly affect others, using “we” feels much more appropriate. Incidentally, this may also explain why so many first-person accounts of the current pandemic were, frankly, insufferable—everyone is suffering, not just you.

Roth continues to reference the collective “we” in the following pages: “our neighborhood,” “we sat on benches,” “our minor league team,” “we were warned,” and on and on. At some point, it would be natural to expect an individual voice to emerge from this unnamed mass, but it never does, at least not until page 108, at which point we’ve completely forgotten that the narrator is a character in the story and not an omniscient narrator. We eventually realize that the “we” refers to the large group of  children who spend each summer day on the playground under the supervision of Bucky Cantor, and the effect is that we, as readers, come to identify with the “we” of the story. We, too, are Jewish boys living in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, playing ball with Bucky Cantor every summer day and trying to keep the fear of polio as far from our minds as possible. Roth is one of us, too, as this was his childhood.

Another technique of Roth’s is to tell a story about the past from the vantage point of the present. This further increases the feeling of a fairy tale or a fable, as the storyteller, in his wisdom and old age, can send us back into the past by saying “once upon a time…” In the case of Nemesis, Roth achieves this effect by referring to the event in question as happening “that summer”—“the first case of polio that summer came early in June,” “the temperature reached the high nineties, as it did repeatedly that summer for stretches of a week or ten days,” “he was twenty-three that summer” (emphasis mine). In addition to these repeated references, Roth continually reminds us of how life was different in 1944: “this was before the advent of home air conditioning,” “nobody then knew the source of the contagion.” This may not be true for all readers, but as I was reading, I didn’t know how polio was spread, and Roth tactfully never gives this information to us, thus heightening the tension. This is another key point, that once Roth sets the scene by narrating the first 12 pages, he then transitions into immersing us directly in in the Newark of 1944, with the knowledge and the viewpoint of people of that time.

Roth’s final tactic in this opening 12-page narration is the use of “would” to describe a repeated or habitual action in the past. This particular use of “would,” while very common in English, is a bit strange grammatically, and it’s often confusing for English language learners. At a certain level, learners think the “would” they are seeing is describing a hypothetical situation, such as “I would go to the store if…” when it’s actually describing an action that was done repeatedly in the past, but no longer. In Nemesis, Roth writes of how some families would escape the threat of polio by going to the Jersey Shore for the summer: “There the mother and children would go to the beach to breathe in the fresh, fortifying ocean air all week long and be joined on weekends and vacations by the father” (emphasis mine). Notice how different the sentence would sound if Roth had written that the mother and children went to the beach. In addition, in this particular sentence Roth uses the definite article “the” to refer to “the father” and “the mother,” as opposed to the more general and seemingly more appropriate “mothers” and “fathers.” It’s as if he’s referring to one specific family instead of all “North Jersey Jews,” but what he’s really doing is reminding the reader of what must have been thought of as the eternal role of the mother and the father in 1944 Newark. The figures of “the father” and “the mother” stand in for all fathers and mothers.

I can only think of “the” being used this way in one other instance, which is when men, among themselves, refer to their specific wives as “the wife” (The wife called. I have to go home now). The implication here is that in certain instances, one wife is all wives. I suppose women might do the same thing among themselves, but I wouldn’t know (So I walk into the bathroom and guess what—the husband left the toilet seat up again!).

But to return to “would,” Roth describes what the girls and boys would do on the playground by writing, “sometimes when the girls jumping rope played double dutch, twirling two ropes in opposite directions, one of the boys would rush up unbidden and, elbowing aside the girl who was about to jump, leap in…the girls would holler at him ‘Stop it! Stop it!’” The key here is that Roth isn’t describing a single, specific instance, but rather something that happened over and over again, once more serving to conjure up the background and setting of 1944 Newark. It is only after providing the reader with this background narration that the story can then move into a specific scene with characters and dialogue, a scene that begins with “One afternoon early in July.” The novel could have begun here, but the framing of the opening section adds a memoir-esque quality to the story, and is that much better for it.