Should Your Book Club Read Nemesis by Philip Roth?

Someone told me that when Nemesis came out, the reviewers said it wasn’t as deep and as layered as some of Roth’s other novels.  Huh?  I couldn’t disagree more.  Nemesis was Literary Master’s October selection, and we had some of the best discussions ever.  Nemesis has layer upon layer of meaning to dig into, and we did!

The bottom line: YES, your book club should read this novel.  And if you don’t belong to a book club, you should read it anyway.  It is, quite simply, one of the best novels I have ever read.  Philip Roth has aced it–this book is a page-turner, but it’s also extremely thought-provoking.

Warp-speed plot summary:  The setting is mainly a Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, in 1944.  There is an outbreak of polio, and tension mounts as the townspeople become increasingly fearful for their children.  (It’s also wartime, and we all know, looking back, what was happening to Jews at the time.) Bucky Cantor is the director of the playground, and he feels it’s his duty to keep the kids safe and healthy.  However, Bucky’s girlfriend, Marcia, is a counselor at a summer camp in the cool mountains, an idyllic place where polio isn’t even a concern.  A job arises for Bucky there, and he has to choose between staying where he is or joining Marcia.  Sounds simple, but this story is complex in a very sophisticated way.

So, what can your book club talk about?

For a start, consider the title.  Can we understand this novel better in the context of a Greek tragedy–where the hero has a flaw, usually hubris, and so the spirit Nemesis puts the hero in his place?  If so, what is our hero’s hubris?  How does it manifest itself?  Or, if you just want to think of a nemesis as an enemy, what is the nemesis in our story?  Is there more than one?

Consider the protagonist Bucky.  What is motivating him?  Why does he make the decisions that he does regarding Marcia?  Why does he make the decision about the summer camp?

This book is a deeply philosophical novel, asking the BIG questions about how one should live.  And of course, asking about whether God exists.  Consider the characters and how they view how one should live.  Take the narrator, for instance.  And compare him to Bucky.  What sets them apart from each other?  Is the book making a judgment about how to live one’s life?  Is the book making a judgment about whether God exists?  What is this book saying about chance?

This book is also a deeply psychological novel, delving into what makes us, as humans, tick.  Do you think Bucky’s actions can be explained when one considers that he feels guilty for his mother’s death?  A type of survivor’s guilt?  What about the fear that grips the townspeople?  Could they have acted any other way?

This book can also, one can argue, be read on a political level.  What else at the time was threatening Jews, attacking them out of nowhere, herding them into a place apart from others?  Is it significant that the boys who come in and spit on the playground are Italian?  Who or what does Horace represent?  Is that handshake to appease him and get him to leave the playground significant?  What references to Germany are present at the Indian Night ceremony?  Or, can we look at the incidents at the summer camp in the context of Native American history?

This book is also exploring the concept of story-telling, asking why we tell them, and taking a close look at just what underpins our beliefs.  Again, consider the ritualistic ceremony at Indian Night.  What’s the significance of that, do you think?

This book is filled with mythological and biblical references.  Consider the scene where Bucky is talking to Dr. Steinberg in Mrs. Steinberg’s garden.  Dr. Steinberg represents?  And consider the peach that Bucky bites into.  And consider Bucky’s subsequent actions…

Or perhaps, like me, you think Bucky is extremely narcissistic.  And if you remember the myth of Narcissus, you’ll see a deeper meaning in the scene where Bucky is diving into the water…

This book is filled with symbolism that you can ‘dig deep’ into.  For example, what do the butterflies represent, if anything?  And what about the relentless sun?  Philip Roth was reading Camus’ The Plague while writing Nemesis (or so I read), and Camus is also the author of The Stranger.  Remember the relentless sun in The Stranger?  Significant?  Coincidental?

What do you make of Bucky’s bad eyesight?  Symbolic?

I laughed as I realized that we all were acting out a major theme of the book as we looked for meanings in the book.  Did Roth intentionally put in the book all that we saw?  Or was it just us bringing our own readings to it?  Does life have a grand design?  Or do we choose to read our own meanings into random occurrences? 

I could go on, but that’s enough to get your book club talking.  I cannot recommend this book enough–you will NOT be disappointed!

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