brian 's Reviews > Nemesis

Nemesis by Philip Roth
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Oct 08, 2010

liked it

if i pie-graphed all the (wasted) hours i've spent arguing on this site, a sizable portion would be wedged out to old man roth. he's one of those guys that really drives people batty (call it a flaw, but i really really love those people who drive other people up the wall): whether he's too ironic, too earnest, too jewish, too american, too classical, too postmodern, too stylized, not stylized enough, too white, too old, too liberal, too conservative, or that he's a misogynist, racist, sexist, self-loathing anti-semite, etc. lotsa people have serious problems with the old bastard. but like morrissey (about the only thing they have in common), those who dig him really dig him. and for those in this camp, i have 2 pieces of good news:

1. in the opening pages of nemesis, in which your typical roth book divvies up the author's work into categories, there appears a new one: SHORT NOVELS. under this heading are his last few: everyman, indignation, the humbling, nemesis. i'm hoping this signifies the end to one of the least interesting chapters in roth's oeuvre.

2. of the four titles under this heading, nemesis is the best. beyond its own merits, it's exciting as it shows roth climbing outta that old-as-fuck self-pitying mode which has dragged down the (pretty) good: everyman, the (truly) bad: exit ghost, and the ugly: the humbling. here's hoping that his next book is one of those big bad complex panoramic novels that roth does better than just about any other living writer.

skimming the nytimes review for nemesis, i came across this bit:

"His characters sometimes get caught up in a kind of Socratic Möbius strip, endlessly debating one another and themselves in a way that can verge on the tedious, but even then one cannot but marvel at his sheer energy, his unremitting investment in — what? Provocation. Interrogation. The feat of living. This is not a nihilist. This is a writer whose creative work lays bare the act of struggle."

yes. yes. yes.
(in vain, i hunted for a lost thread in which mike reynolds - another rothfan - waxed poetic on roth's energy and anger. anyone know where this is?)

oh. and here goes a totally irrelevant (but very fun) link to piss off monsieur watkins:
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October 8, 2010 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-47 of 47) (47 new)

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message 1: by D. (new)

D. Pow boy, you'll just suck up any old bodily fluid this geezer spits out, wont ya?

brian   pathetic, huh?

message 3: by D. (new)

D. Pow Actually, I give him BALLS respect because his capacity to maintain his artistic vigor at his age. I don't think he's at the top of his game but he is still better than most.

I'm just riding you because I like to ride you. And that will be the queerest thing I say all day, thank you very much.

message 4: by David (new)

David I saw your mistake (Exit instead of Indignation) and was planning to expose you as a Roth poseur.

And WHO ever did or ever would accuse Roth of being 'too stylized'? You just wanted some more for-instances and threw that one in -- because nobody except maybe the guy who writes tax return instructions would find Roth overstylized.

But he is too Jewish. I hate you people.

message 5: by David (new)

David They should call The Don 'The Caveman' because he caves whenever you prod him about anything. And yet he's astute in his gracefulness.

message 6: by brian (last edited Oct 08, 2010 10:25AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

brian   exit ghost is there intentionally.
even though it's not under the heading 'short novels' (technically it's a 'zuckerman' book), it was released amongst the others and has more in common with them (in terms of quality and theme) than the other zuckerman's.

and the fact that you continue on about roth having 'no style' exposes you as a bigger moron than any of us actually believed (i mean, we really did think it was all an act). remember i posted that piece that james wood wrote about roth's sentence style and structure in sabbath's theater? do i need to do this again? apparently roth's prosework is too subtle for the likes of such a big dummy.

message 7: by David (new)

David Haha, as YM used to say. That made me LOL. I love it when you get your hackles up and call me a big dummy. You Jews are fucking funny... when you're not charging usurious interest for loans.

brian   haha!

brian   holy shit!
two of my faves.
(well, three, if you count bruenning)

thanks jon.

message 10: by Jason (new)

Jason I was wondering if you'd pipe up and say more than stars about this. I'm glad you did. I, too, am glad that this may be the end of a particular sequence or approach in his work; I, too, am an inveterate fan thrown off by some things but overall always going to go for more Roth. I'm kind of curious if he could reinvent himself again....

PS you're dead right about his style. Nyah nyah Kowalski...

message 11: by David (last edited Oct 08, 2010 11:00AM) (new)

David Hm. Let me get my super-duper, ultra-sensitive scientific scale out and see how much weight the opinion of a Brief Interviews with Hideous Men detractor carries.

Well, lookee. Not very much, it turns out.

For CHRISSAKE. You gave Civilwar in Bad Decline FIVE stars?

I have no idea who/what you are, Michael Reynolds.

brian   you're a real jackass, kowalski.
that's the lowest tactic of all the low tactics.
go filching through someone's shelves to find some objectionable ratings to invalidate a current opinion?
you're a bad bad man.

message 13: by David (new)

David That's lower that 'nyah nyah'?

Apparently the rules of debate have evolved since I was in high school.

Although ad hominem arguments are unacceptable as a form of logical debate, they are more acceptable in matters of taste. If I disagree with someone's taste 9 times out of 10, there's a pretty good chance I'll disagree on the 11th example too.

message 14: by Eddie (new)

Eddie Watkins I'm not much of a Roth fan but Zuckerman Bound was very well written sentence by sentence, with style, but Operation Shylock was way too loose-lipped.

And that link didn't piss me off. It's the hypertext stuff that gets to me.

message 15: by David (new)

David Why don't you prefer hypertext to a an unsightly web address, Eddie Watkins?

message 16: by Eddie (last edited Oct 08, 2010 11:54AM) (new)

Eddie Watkins I just had a very weird and disturbing experience walking back to work from lunch. As I approached the curb to wait for the light to cross I saw from behind a statuesque and attractive blonde, but when I got up next to her and checked her out further I saw that her sandalled feet were large toeless clubs and her hands were huge and monstrously deformed.

The propinquity of your two links reminded me of this.

message 17: by David (new)

David She had no toes?! That had to be traumatic for you, EdWat, given your conflicted and tumultuous feelings about feet in general. At least they weren't couch potato flippers though.

message 18: by Eddie (new)

Eddie Watkins One foot I think had a huge deformed big toe, but the other foot was a big bony club. Besides that and her hands she was attractive, though her face seemed permanently sad.

So, yes, it was very traumatic, and man I felt bad for her. As I walked ahead I could see the approaching people checking her out, or trying not to.

Wasn't the full description M. C. Escher neurasthenic couch potato flippers? Can't quite remember, and I certainly don't want to revist that image.

message 19: by David (new)

David Yep, that was it. Still makes me laugh. Although I find mine very sexy.

message 20: by Eddie (new)

Eddie Watkins David wrote: "I find mine very sexy."

That's good, David. I'm sure it helps in your pursuit of solitary pleasures.

message 21: by Jason (new)

Jason brian, no worries: David and I know quite well our respective radical disagreements. I'm pretty sure he's pulled out Saunders on me before. And I don't care--I'm good with my ratings, and my stars. I enjoy the tussle with that ol' Goliath Davey.

I don't have an opinion about his feet, or Eddie's, or that woman Eddie saw.

message 22: by Greg (new)

Greg Two superficial observations of the book. One, I'm fond of the way the title is printed on the spine of the dustjacket. Two, the super-bright sun-like yellow of the book I'm less fond of. I see the book shining at me from three aisles away as I type this. I'm uncertain if the awful color of the cover negates the coolness of the spine.

brian   agreed, greg.
bright glossy yellow is just a horrible color for any book. and the spine design (which is nice) is such a bookseller thing to notice!

message 24: by Jason (new)

Jason I was in a rush, and rather flip, and so didn't get back on the style thing. 2 points:

1, I can't find that old comment on Roth, either. I do like much of what Woods says, and I recall Lorrie Moore really capturing in a sharp review something precise and perfect about his voice (which I won't recreate effectively, either). But--it is voice that I think can get lost; you have to hear the diction, the rhythm. It's not flashy but it is very stylized. I think of: the voice of the hectored and hectoring, the rising intonations in sentences that can last, and comma, and comma, and last -- the slowburn building to a maledictive scorn. I can hear it begin in faux urbanity, the voice of the reasoned, becoming increasingly east-coast urban: petulant, snotty. It is a style extravagantly but cartoonishly realized in Portnoy, but as he's made it more subtle it still never seems to have disappeared. Roth writes amazing American english.

2, why Saunders more than Wallace? It's odd--'cause they have somewhat similar agendae and even approach. Each (in these two above-debated collections) is writing a heightened version of a particular kind of narcissistic empty voice (Saunders the flattened cheery cruelty of bureaucratic capitalism; Wallace the solipsistic fake-reflective stutter-um-pedantry and barely-repressed rage of the American male). Both men have a deep moral streak; both are often strangely compassionate about their characters, for all their rigorous critique of these characters' actions. And my appreciation of Saunders is greater for reasons that may have more to do with my own peccadilloes: I think he's funnier. I am more attuned to, and probably guilty of, that kind of voice. Saunders (in a later volume) wrote one of my favorite stories -- 93990 (I think), which is a lab report. It is pitched so straight that one could (and I've had a few students do so) almost not realize it's fiction. And that's another thing I love--Saunders unravels my sense of narrative, or re-ravels it around and through textual forms that I see everywhere.... but I'm rambling. I can understand why you wouldn't like Saunders, or much prefer Wallace. But my counter-opinion has a bit of meat behind it.

So, how's that? Now, off to some sci-fi, to further enrage and confound DK.

Krok Zero Ever notice that Philip Roth and Bernie Madoff appear to have been separated at birth? Or is that just me?

brian   krok is such an anti-semite it makes david look like anne frank.

Krok Zero I'm a Jew!

message 28: by David (new)

David Krokophilia wrote: "I'm a Jew!"

Well, you're not Jewish enough.
Look at Jackie Mason. Now there's a Jew.

message 29: by David (last edited Oct 09, 2010 12:09PM) (new)

David Michael Reynolds:

1. I never said that Roth didn't have a style. So nyah. I merely said that I don't think anyone would accuse him of being overstylized. Pay attention! You said that 'it's not flashy.' And I think that's why. His style (in most of his novels, anyway) is very unobtrusive and generally doesn't call attention to itself. It makes me think of Saul Bellow's Augie March. Sure, there's style in that novel -- there's style in every novel -- but Bellow's seems so unembellished and ordinary that one's awareness of it is, at times, peripheral.

2. I'm not sure if I agree that Saunders and Wallace have a similar agenda and approach. Sure, they're both 'postmodernists' in the popular sense of the word, prone to experimentation and to tweaking the conventions of fiction (Wallace, I think, more so than Saunders), but Wallace seems less concerned with being a showman or court jester than Saunders. And while Saunders might be more funny (allegedly), I don't think Wallace was really targeting that kind of broad, ingratiating humor, so to compare them on that count seems a bit unfair. Saunders tends to be more of a goof (with admittedly serious ambitions), while Wallace is a bit dryer and more obtuse in his humor. In other words, it's more sophisticated, I would say, but that's not to fault Saunders' own brand of humor. But when the attempt at humor, as in Saunders' case, is so blatant and eager, it's that much more conspicuous when it fails, as is often the case with him. I sense his enthusiasm -- his talent, less so.

message 30: by Jason (new)

Jason Fair point about style. I should read you more closely. (It's odd, 'though, to call Bellow--BELLOW?!--unembellished.)

Fair point about humor, too, but I wasn't trying to compare them there. I like Saunders because he strikes me as working in the comic vein. I don't think Wallace is, and I will tend to prefer the silly to the sober; I fawn over Pynchon, while McCarthy's bleak straightfaced vision leaves me a bit cold. And we just disagree about how effective Saunders is. (Now, in essay format, DFW writes not just circles but whole Euclidean textbooks around Saunders' work. DFW is among the finest American essayists of the last important-big-number of years.)

Thanks for coming back with this. One of the things I've enjoyed most about brian's reviews of Roth and the fights in threads underneath said reviews is that I get to hear smart people actually try to make sense of their appreciations. That's hard to do well, and you do it well, Davey.

message 31: by David (new)

David I am ONLY talking about Augie March when I refer to Bellow. I know some of his later stuff is ultra-stylized. I thought Augie March was the saltine of style though.

message 32: by brian (last edited Oct 09, 2010 12:49PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

brian   augie march as 'unembellished' and the 'saltine of style' -- whaaaat?

ok, it's clear when myself/m.reynolds speak of style it's something different entirely than to what kowalski refers. if the bellow of augie is 'saltine', i have a hard time figuring out who is, um, the 'enchilada' of style... nabokov? amis (who, of course, points to bellow as the master prose stylist)? beckett? faulkner? do tell...

bellow regularly refers to augie march as the book in which he found his voice, his style. just check the first sentence:

"I am an American, Chicago born - Chicago, that somber city - and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent."

if this stuff is 'unembellished', then what isn't?

message 33: by David (last edited Oct 09, 2010 01:22PM) (new)

David In the interest of full disclosure, I don't like Bellow.

I don't think that sentence is extremely embellished myself. (And I don't accept Martin Amis as the final authority on such matters. Sorry.) Maybe that kind of writing has become sort of vernacular we expect from the 'great American novel' that it doesn't quite register anymore.

Again! I didn't say that Bellow doesn't have style. I just implied that his style is sort of conversational, unobtrusive, unpremeditated-seeming. It isn't very baroque or estranged from the purely colloquial (especially within the era it was written).

I do think Nabokov and Beckett and Faulkner are great examples of highly-stylized writers. Others that come to mind, of course, include DeLillo (definitely!) and Sherwood Anderson. Gertrude Stein may be THE most stylized writer in the English language (whether or not you like that style is up to you).

I think that you and Mike Reynolds happen to like an unadorned, inconspicuous style very much. (You told me you're not a fan of 'the perfect sentence.') And that's fine. But it's almost as if you want me to fault Roth and Bellow with being overstylized. Is that a criticism that you think they deserve?

message 34: by David (new)

David And... as I recall, Gottlieb, you haven't READ Augie March! So kindly STFU about it.

message 35: by Jason (new)

Jason I think maybe it's less "unadorned" than capturing the conversational -- but I see what you're saying, DK. I remember reading William Carlos Williams as if simple, unadorned--and then getting kicked about how he was trying to capture the specific rhythms of speech. So I tried reading his stuff aloud to myself, and whoa--it altered the way I came at him. The folks you name are all great--and all interested in language which breaks, even estranges us, from everyday usage. Maybe that's the key? It ain't unadorned, and certainly not uncrafted, but the objectives are perhaps different for a Roth & Bellow versus a Stein or DeLillo.

Krok Zero David wrote: "Krokophilia wrote: "I'm a Jew!"

Well, you're not Jewish enough.
Look at Jackie Mason. Now there's a Jew."

I'm so sorry for posting this, but any mention of Jackie Mason makes me automatically hit up youtube for his exercise vlogs:

He has 297 videos!

message 37: by Krok Zero (last edited Oct 09, 2010 11:12PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Krok Zero Oh, and I think Roth's stuff is stylized as fuck, though stylized in this case does not mean the kind of prettified language of say a Michael Chabon. I think it's important to remember that style doesn't necessarily equal pretty. (Not that anyone on this thread thinks that, I'm just sayin'.) But he writes those long twisting info-packed sentences that seem to start one place and end somewhere wildly different while still making perfect sense and being completely followable and containing multitudes of human agony.

I don't see Saunders as a goof (he's a moralist) or as too eager/blatant in his humor (for me, his humor often takes a backburner to the crushing sadness/poignance of his tales). What Saunders and DFW have most in common is an interest in figuring out how to remain human out there in the big bad cruel postmodern world -- it's just that Saunders addresses this directly and DFW took a more circuitous route. Of the writers discussed in this thread, Saunders is the most stylistically inconspicuous but, to me, the most profound, or at least profoundly moving.

message 38: by David (last edited Oct 11, 2010 06:42PM) (new)

David Wow. You think Saunders is moving? I never once got that out of him.

But RE: The Stylization Argument... I'm bowing out because I'm clearly outnumbered on this thread (by Roth fans). I respectfully disagree, but since quantity/quality of stylization is a very nebulous concept, this could go on forever. But I still maintain what I originally said -- I find it difficult to imagine someone complaining that Roth is overstylized. Is someone here arguing that Roth is overstylized? Because I'd be willing to concede the point if only someone here would fault him with anything, even being overstylized.

message 39: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 12, 2010 11:31AM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I have a gut feeling Saunders is gonna be awesome. But that might just be my ultra-contrarian ambitions w/r/t David's Empire of Aesthetic Tyranny.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I almost picked up The Dying Animal the other day. Then I got overwhelmed with book purchasing choices and just left the store.

brian   fleshy:

#40: take out that damn apostrophe. or the extra is.
#41: you chose poorly

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Whoops.


message 43: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! (in vain, i hunted for a lost thread in which mike reynolds - another rothfan - waxed poetic on roth's energy and anger. anyone know where this is?)

I remember that, even though I could barely follow it. It was wonderful. This is the closest I could find, last post:

I think what you're thinking of got lost with a deletion.

brian   thanks eh!
it's funny to read this -- we're having the same exact argument! ok, gonna cut and paste it here:

193310 ah... i found the wood passage. check out his analysis of a single sentence from Roth's near-masterpiece sabbath's theater:

Philip Roth does something similar in this long sentence from Sabbath's Theater. Mickey Sabbath, satanic seducer and misanthrope, has been having a long, juicy affair with a Croatian-American, Drenka:

"Lately, when Sabbath suckled Drenka's uberous breasts - uberous, the root word of exuberant, which is itself ex plus uberare, to be fruitful, to overflow like Juno lying prone in Tintoretto's painting where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit - suckled with an unrelenting frenzy that caused Drenka to roll her head ecstatically back and to groan (as Juno herself may have once groaned), "I feel it deep down in my cunt," he was pierced by this sharpest of longings for his late little mother."

This is an amazingly blasphemous little mélange. This sentence is really dirty, and partly because it conforms to the well-known definition of dirt -- matter out of place, which is itself a definition of the mixing of high and low dictions. But why would Roth engage in such baroque deferrals and shifts? Why write it so complicatedly? If you render the simple matter of his sentence and keep everything in place - i.e., remove the jostle of registers - you see why. A simple version would go like this: "Lately, when Sabbath sucked Drenka's breasts, he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late mother." It is still funny, because of the slide from lover to mother, but it is not exuberant. So the first thing the complexity achieves is to enact the exuberance, the hasty joy and chaotic desire, of sex. Second, the long, mock-pedantic, suspended subclause about the Latin origin of "uberous" and Tintoretto's painting of Juno works, in proper music-hall fashion, to delay the punchline of "he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late little mother." (It also delays, and makes more shocking and unexpected, the entrance of "cunt.") Third, since the comedy of the subject matter of the sentence involves moving from one register to another - from a lover's breast to a mother's - it is fitting that the style of the sentence mimics this scandalous shift, by engaging in its own stylistic shifts, going up and down like a manic EKG: so we have "suckled" (high diction), "breasts" (medium), "uberare" (high), "Tintoretto's paintings" (high), "where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit" (low), etc... By insisting on equalizing all these different levels of diction, the style of the sentence works as style should, to incarnate the meaning, and the meaning itself, of course, is all about the scandal of equalizing different registers. Sabbath's Theater is a passionate, intensely funny, repellent, and very moving portrait of the scandal of male sexuality, which is itself linked in the book to vitality itself. To be able to have an erection in the morning, to be able to seduce women in one's mid-sixties, to be able to persist in scandalizing bourgeois morality, to be able to say every single day, as the aging Mickey does, "Fuck the laudable ideologies!" is to be alive. And this sentence is utterly alive, and is alive by virtue of the way it scandalizes proper norms. Is it Drenka or Juno or Mickey's late mother who is being fucked in this sentence? All three of them. Roth brilliantly catches the needy, babyish side of male sexuality, in which a lover's breast is still really mommy's suckling tit, because mommy was your first and only lover. Drenka, then, inevitably, is both Madonna (mother, Juno) and whore (because she can't be as good as mommy was). In classic misogynistic fashion, the woman is adored and hated by men because she is the source of life - the Milky Way flows out of her breasts, and children come between her legs. Men cannot rival that, even as they, like Mickey or late Yeats, rage on about male 'vitality.' And notice the subtle way that, with his verb 'pierced' ("pierced by the sharpest of longings"), Roth inverts the presumed male-female order. Mickey, who is presumably piercing (in a sexual sense) this mother-whore by entering her, is really being pierced or entered - fucked back in turn - by the woman who gave birth to him. All this in one superb sentence.

brian   and yes - sadly, i do think reynolds' writings on roth's anger and energy has been deleted.

message 46: by Jason (new)

Jason Huh. I *thought* it had been in that thread, but I couldn't find the comment. I wonder how it got deleted. I certainly didn't remove it; every syllable of my brilliance must be preserved!

message 47: by [deleted user] (new)

Gee, I really liked this book. Guess I'm the dumbass of this thread. And the johnny-come-lately.

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