Literary Criticism and Significance

Roth’s thirty-first novel, Nemesis, fits into a series of short later works that deal with moral issues, often death, including Everyman (2006); Exit, Ghost (2007); Indignation (2008); and The Humbling (2009). The brisk pace and sparse style of these books contrast both with the sprawling, epic character of Roth’s critically acclaimed novels of the 1990s, including American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000), and they also contrast with the bawdy humor of Roth’s early bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

Although the polio epidemic in Nemesis has been exaggerated (no epidemic that large ever consumed the city), Roth says the fear experienced by the characters is true to life, and it was the remembrance of this fear from his own boyhood in the 1940s that inspired him to write the novel. In an interview he said:

Polio was, I think, the single-greatest menace....The cause was unknown. There was no treatment. So, it was pretty terrifying.

Many book reviews have highlighted the differences between Nemesis and Roth’s early novels. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times points out that the novel is a “modest undertaking” compared to his longer works and that Mr. Cantor is quite unlike the usual protagonist of a Roth novel, “one of his self-conscious writer-heroes.” Nan Goldberg of the Newark Star-Ledger criticizes the leaner prose style of the book:

Where is the brilliant language, the razor-sharp poetry of Roth’s perpetually appalled rants?

Other critics found the book’s pat plot twists and secondary characters to be below the rich tapestry of other Roth novels such as The Plot Against America. Helen McAlpin of National Public Radio calls the novel “slight” and a “repetitive,...

(The entire section is 635 words.)