So far in Philip Roth’s Nemesis we encounter Bucky Cantor – a primary school PE teacher – who is the playground director in the summer, the season of Polio infestation. Cantor has been denied membership in the army due to his poor eyesight, which as left him feeling inadequate and ashamed – he feels he is being judged by the wider community for his lack of participation in the war effort:
“He was ashamed to be seen in civilian clothes, ashamed when he watched the news reels of the war at the movies, ashamed when he took the bus home to Newark from East Orange at the end of the school day and sat beside someone reading in the evening paper the day’s biggest story…he felt the shame of someone who might by himself have made a difference as the US forces in the pacific suffered one colossal defeat after another” (p.27).
It is evident that Cantor has a strong affinity towards the children, and is distraught by the fact that they are dying as a result of this “summertime disease”, so much so that when his girlfriend Marcia, suggests that he leaves the school to accompany her and, to some extent, save himself from contracting the illness, he refuses, saying that “I can’t leave them. They need me more than ever. This is what I have to be doing” (p.85). This bond he shares with these students is seen once again in his resentment towards God for directing this disease towards the children only:
“But for killing Alan with polio at twelve? For the very existence of Polio? How could there be forgiveness – let alone hallelujahs – in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” (p. 75).
We see in this instance, a central question the novel poses: what is the significance of polio being contracted by young children as opposed to teenagers, adults or those of an older generation?
It is clear that Cantor is disappointed with God. He has taken away his father, his mother and most importantly his paternal figure and mentor in life – his grandfather. This naturally brings about the next question: why does God do the things He does – why does He interfere in this way? Can we link this involvement of God during contagion-based crises to any of the other texts we have read so far? How do they compare to Nemesis?
This interference has made Cantor reflect upon the idea of what a “real family” should be, and how himself had not grown up in one, as he was raised by grandparents as opposed to the boys in his class who were “sons of their parents” (p.123). What are some elements that define what a family truly is, looking at previous texts?
We see Cantor’s distress over the fact that children are dying as opposed to adults, with the death and funeral of Alan, who will “remain twelve forever” (p.63). This idea of death freezing one’s existence in time alludes to the notion of the timelessness of death – a concept that appears subtly in the novel and primarily when Cantor reflects as to whether his mother would have looked as his grandmother does, had she been alive, which goes to show that the image that he has of her is a picture frozen in time, unchanged by external circumstances, as is now the case of Alan.
It is undeniable that the playground has a sense of eeriness to it. It seems to be the both the breeding ground for polio, and is slowly consuming the children – it appears to be an entity of its own and a central cog in the drama of the novel, affecting several, if not all, of the plots and subplots. Can you think of instances in previous texts where a non-human figure has been this influential in the action of the story? Perhaps blood and money in Dream of Ding Village? Can you think of any others?
We have encountered an array of narrators in the texts we have read. What is the significance of this text being narrated by a man (who was once a child in the Newark playground), who was infected by polio, keeping in mind what we have aforementioned about the degree of unfairness about children being the targets of this disease?
We hope this leads to an interesting class discussion about this text!
By Camila, Simi, Sudikchya and Silviu