Philip Roth has written 31 books, in a heady variety of forms, and he wants to tame them. The page headed "Also By Philip Roth" identifies, for instance, "Zuckerman Books" (ten in all) and "Roth Books" (five). It is a mark of the author's curatorial obsessiveness that a novel may shift categories, as has happened with Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling, which were formerly classified as "Other Books", but now comprise "Nemeses: Short Novels" along with this new one.
The groupings may be a source of comfort to first-time readers, or those struggling to distinguish between so many forgotten paperbacks; but they can prompt irritation among devoted followers. Nemesis may be grim and short, but it deserves more like-minded - and attractive - bedfellows than Everyman or The Humbling.
In the way it combines personal memory with imagination, the new work has more in common with a series of speculative autobiographical novels that might be called "What If? Books". The Plot Against America locates the seven-year-old Roth in a country ruled not by Franklin D Roosevelt, but by the isolationist Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh. The protagonist of Indignation, Marcus Messner, is landed in a situation that Roth imagined in his autobiography, The Facts: "if my father were to challenge the ordering of my private life, now that I was a college student, I would feel suffocated by his strictures". Marcus, tired of that suffocating feeling, leaves Robert Treat College in Newark for Winesburg College in Ohio, as Philip left Newark College of Rutgers for Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; but where Philip kept his mouth shut when being "admonished" by his college dean, Marcus talks back and is soon expelled. He ends up fighting, and dying, in Korea.
What young, frightened Roth, defiant, stubborn Marcus and Arnie Mesnikoff, the narrator of Nemesis, have in common is a vulnerability to fate's capricious cruelty. Arnie talks of "the force of circumstance" and "the tyranny of contingency". He was one of many 12-year-olds who contracted polio in the epidemic of 1944 that could have afflicted the 12-year-old Roth. But we don't find this out immediately. In the book's opening sentence, his existence is implied but not explained: "The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighbourhood crosstown from where we lived." This is reminiscent of the "we" that appears, before disappearing altogether, in the first chapter of Madame Bovary. For most of its length, the novel, though narrated by Arnie, is concerned with Bucky Cantor, a graduate of Panzer College of Physical Education and Hygiene who works as a gym teacher during the school term and as a playground attendant during the summer, and to whose thoughts and impressions Arnie is mysteriously privy.
In my Venn diagram of Roth's oeuvre, Nemesis would also enjoy the esteemed company of the "23-Year-Old Protagonist Books": Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go and The Ghost Writer.
It is also one of the "Weequahic Books", and therefore the latest answer to the author's anxious youthful inquiry: "How could Art be rooted in a parochial Jewish Newark neighbourhood having nothing to do with the enigma of time and space or good and evil or appearance and reality?" As things turned out: by finding a connection in that apparent opposition, the press of local detail assisting, rather than resisting, the development of grand themes.
If Roth found, in Letting Go, one of those ideal Bildungsroman titles, he has now found, in Nemesis, a one-word summary of his later characters' habits of self-destruction, their failure to hold on to sanity and self-respect. Bucky's nemesis is his conscience, producer first of shame that he didn't go with his buddies to fight in the Second World War (he was declared 4-F because of bad eyesight), next of guilt for fleeing to visit his girlfriend at a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains, having abandoned the children of Weequahic for fear of contracting the virus. He even suffers a certain indignation, most of it aimed at God, "a cold-blooded murderer of children". And this brings out his cowardice: "He thought to ask: Doesn't God have a conscience? Where's His responsibility? Or does He know no limits? But instead he asked, 'Should the playground be shut down?'"
Ever since Goodbye, Columbus - the long story published in this country as a stand-alone work - Roth has projected, and instilled, a sense of absolute confidence; a half-century on, his gift looks disturbingly like a knack. Nemesis is a forceful, exacting, even word-perfect novel, but it is also unadventurous, familiar, a little otiose - a work beyond the powers of most novelists but well within his. Bucky is yet another victim of Roth's Law, whereby things conspire quite ingeniously against a character's bright hopes and good intentions, and the only semblance of order is a run of improbably bad luck. Having fled the playground out of a feeling of impotence, he is then maddened by its closure: "If he'd remained in Newark a few days longer, he would never have had to quit."
The long view also yields irritations: Arnie mentions the development of the polio vaccine only a decade later, making all those 12-year-old deaths not just unnecessary, but so nearly avoidable. Bucky may yield to superstition and pessimism, but this is just about the only possible response to the dovetailing miseries of Roth's kick-yourself universe.
Bucky is also treated in much the same way as an earlier sportsman, "Swede" Levov in American Pastoral, his early glories merely a greater height from which to fall. Bucky's best sport is javelin, an activity the local youngsters hold in awe, though one that connects him to the heroes of Attic drama, the original tragic figures. The novel ends with Arnie's recollection of the "invincible" Bucky, a passage of somewhat lumbering irony, given that, at the time of remembrance, Bucky is a ruined man. There persists in Roth - depressive, painkiller addict, survivor of quintuple bypass surgery - a sense of deference to sporting heroes. But it is a deference characterised by detachment and even resentment; in Nemesis, the story of a fallen athlete is told by a stoic polio victim.
It is a task he performs with great fluency; despite the book's deterministic structure, its prose never falters or fails to compel. Roth has developed, in his recent work, a full-throated and large-lunged style that manages to convey a great deal of insight and information with minimal fuss.
Sentences are arranged around parentheses and subordinate clauses in a way that serves to clarify rather than clutter. There is little messingaround or hanging about. A thought occurs to him, and he's off; eventually, he makes his way back to the original thought - no shortness of breath, not a hint of brow-sweat. Then a new thought occurs to him, and he's off again. Roth, puny and bookish, an indoors type, may only be able to imagine how Bucky feels hurling that javelin, but he imagines it both as a sympathetic describer and as a kindred spirit, a fellow pro. He stands, aged 77, as the Rafael Nadal of American fiction - but Nadal with traces (fading ambition, failing nerves) of Roger Federer.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £16.99