Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 280pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Nemesis, By Philip Roth

For some time now, Philip Roth has been tidying up his past publications page, shuffling his previous books into five main categories: Zuckerman books (novels about his novelist protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman); Roth books (novels about Philip Roth himself); Kepesh books (novels about his academic protagonist, David Kepesh); Miscellany (non-fiction-ish books about writing) and a vaguer category of "Other Books". With Nemesis, he has introduced a new category, "Nemeses: Short Novels", into which he has shuffled three books (Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling) previously placed in the "other" group.

Roth has described these as "cataclysmic" books, in which "you don't die, but everyone else does." But, revealing the arbitrariness of the distinction, he has also suggested that two other recent novels – Exit Ghost (a Zuckerman book) and The Plot Against America (a mere "other book") – would also fit this category. Adding to the confusion, Nemesis, which he describes as a short novel, is - at 280 pages - of greater length than many of his regularly-sized books.

The four Nemeses books do have thematic connections, and anyone who has read Indignation will probably guess the narrative surprise in this latest. They also have a stylistic link, often found in late works: the prose is utterly shorn of any authorial flourish. They represent a tailing-off of the stylistic brio that has marked every novel by Roth since Sabbath's Theatre reminded everyone of the scale of his talents.

Nemesis has a distinctly unpromising set-up. The bulk of the novel takes place in the summer of 1944, and concerns a sporty man, Bucky Cantor, who has become a playground director in Newark, New Jersey.

When a polio epidemic breaks out among the children, Cantor is determined, against the wishes of his girlfriend and family, to stay and protect his charges. The first two-thirds are in the most direct prose Roth has ever written.

The book reads like non-fiction, with Roth seeming to only lightly tweak history, shaping events into the vaguest of narratives, deliberately underplaying scenes and eschewing any strong sense of plot. The only incident that provides any real dramatic purpose concerns a possible reason for the outbreak, when a group of Italians show up at the playground and threaten that they are going to spread polio by spitting on the pavement.

Cantor dismisses the possibility that the epidemic starts with this event – and it's something Roth repeatedly questions – but soon afterwards children start dying. Cantor, who already suffers from guilt because he isn't serving in the army, sticks it out as long as he can, before his girlfriend insists he join her at summer camp and he cracks.

Days after he leaves, Newark begins to shut down playgrounds and Cantor is stricken with remorse. If he'd stayed longer, he wouldn't have to face the shame of running away. Worse still, there's soon an outbreak of polio at the holiday camp, and Bucky, who now suffers himself, begins to see himself as Typhoid Mary.

It's the final third of the novel which elevates this tragic story beyond a series of miserable events and back towards Roth's grand theme: the injustice of fate. What makes Roth such an important novelist is the effortless way he brings together the trivial and the profoundly serious, and nowhere is this more in evidence than his late books. Whether it's the way Simon Axler's desire to have a threesome in The Humbling is linked to the diminution of his talents, or that the student in The Dying Animal wants to show her old professor her breasts to help her prepare for a mastectomy, he always finds black comedy in the darkest subject matter.

Sex and death are linked throughout his oeuvre but, unusually, it is not until the final third of Nemesis that sex truly becomes important. The perspective shifts and Roth depicts the protagonist being visited in old age by one of the playground boys who contracted polio. The boy discovers that Cantor has never recovered from the pain of his early adulthood, but what concerns him even more than the loss of his physical prowess is the memory of the girlfriend who abandoned him in his darkest moment.

As with the other protagonists of this late quartet, Bucky is a doomed man, unable to either believe in God or accept his lot. The true nemesis in all four books is the grim reaper: the one foe that cannot be beaten.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas