NEMESIS -- Philip Roth
I get a flu shot every year and I'm addicted to hand sanitizer. I never share drinks or eat off someone else's plate and I keep my house clean. But, what if that weren't enough? What if I could get sick just by walking outside? What if I didn't know where the threats were and how to avoid them? Can you imagine how terrifying life would be if we weren't able to protect ourselves from invisible, microbiotic killers?
Philip Roth could. In his latest novel, he imagines what would have happened if there had been a Polio outbreak in Newark during the Summer of 1944. Roth has an interesting set of writing habits. He often writes from the perspective of the same omniscient protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, and always writes about Jewish communities, typically in New Jersey. Though Zuckerman doesn't make an appearance in this book, the Jewish section of Newark is the epicenter of the story. This time, the protagonist is a student at the Weequahic Middle School who, along with many of his playmates, contracts polio.
The story focuses on the gym teacher, Mr. Cantor, and his experiences that summer. Mr. Cantor has terrible vision and, therefore, wasn't able to head off to the war. He berates himself for his imperfections and feels considerable guilt at not joining his peers in fighting for his country. He's further tormented by the polio outbreak and his inability to save his students.
To me, the book's title reflects not only the polio virus, but also our own internal enemies. We all have visions for ourselves, goals, expectations that are sometimes too high to achieve. We can put such pressure on ourselves that we lose sight of reality and of who we are. We become so bogged down in evaluating our past decisions that we can lose sight of what's ahead. In fact, our whole future can be redirected because we lose the ability to distinguish right from wrong.
There are some inevitable facts in life. There will be diseases. People will get sick. Good people will be taken from us much too soon. But, we cannot allow our fear of sickness to prevent us from living our lives to the fullest. We cannot spend more time reviewing our past than living in our present. We all make choices that we regret later. But, if we don't accept our mistakes and move forward, we will ruin ourselves. We will become our own nemesis.