NEMESIS Philip Roth Jonathan Cape, £16.99 HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE Charles Yu Corvus, £12.99
THESE two novels present a neat compare and contrast exercise on the state of contemporary fiction. Roth's novel is his 29th, and he is the winner of the Gold Medal in Fiction. Yu's novel is his first, and after a publishing some short stories he was chosen for the "5 Under 35" programme, where former winners of the National Book Award selected one young writer whose work impressed them (Yu was, incidentally, the choice of the underrated Richard Powers). Both interrogate questions about manliness and failure, but while Roth's novel manages to be both onerous and slight, Yu's is both light and deep.
Nemesis is set in 1944, and introduces "Bucky" Cantor, a well-meaning physical education teacher in Newark, whose poor eyesight has disqualified him from participating in the war. As his classmates battle Nazism, he is thrust into combat against a polio epidemic. Despite his initial sensible agnosticism about the causes of the disease, the meaningless suffering eventually leads him to see the world as one where "their merciful God will have blessed them… before He sticks His shiv in their back" and is a combination of "a sick f*** and an evil genius".
That he blames himself for having infected another part of the community and has been crippled by the disease himself makes his pseudo-theological pessimism no more convincing. Roth constantly nudges the reader with supposedly profound ironies: Bucky's real name is Eugene, and his quest to help the children avoid being "Jewish weaklings and sissies" is overcast with the eugenic overtones of his given name. He escapes Newark to be with his fiance at a camp called Indian Hills, where each dorm is named after an Indian tribe, each of which has been blighted by infection and genocide. None of this is made any more convincing by lacklustre prose. At times Roth is just careless - split infinitives, bald clichs - and at others, the combination of information dump and unwieldy sentences is the opposite of elegant; for example: "now even in a year with an average number of cases, when the chances of contracting polio were much reduced from what they'd been back in 1916, a paralytic disease which left a youngster permanently disabled and deformed or unable to breathe outside a cylindrical metal respirator tank known as an iron lung - or that could lead from paralysis of the respiratory muscles to death - caused the parents in our neighbourhood considerable apprehension and marred the peace of mind of children who were free of school for the summer months and able to play outdoors all day and into the long twilit evenings". Roth may be a great writer, but this is hardly great writing.
How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, on the other hand, buzzes with ideas, takes stylistic risks successfully, and is tightly focused on the emotional impact of the story. The protagonist, named Charles Yu, is a time-machine repair man, in love with his onboard computer TAMMY and tormented by his father's disappearance. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that at some point, Charles will see himself coming out of a time-machine and will shoot his future self in the stomach; but not before future Charles has given him a book entitled How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. A brief prcis might well lead a reader to dismiss this as sophomoric postmodern antics. But the skill of this novel is twofold. On one hand, Yu has immense fun with his futuristic setting ("Do you want to know the first thing she (ie TAMMY) ever said to me? ENTER PASSWORD. Okay, yeah, that was the first thing"); on the other, he uses the literal convolutions of time, memory and imagination to make serious points about how we actually live.
The time-machine may be a science fiction concept, but the desire to imagine better futures, the urge to revisit painful or blissful memories, and the desperation of clinging to a moment are all recognisable psychological realities. The "wisp of now" eludes us. Although Yu has evidently read his literary theory (and there is a glorious set piece where his character reads, writes and edits the book from the future simultaneously which is as good an account of literary creation as I've read), this doesn't hobble his emotional acuity. The novel is especially ingenious in using the language of grammar more than "techno-babble". When the engines cannae take it any more, Yu is thrown into the subjunctive and meets The Woman My Mother Should Have Been. He learns why his father, having invented time travel, became stuck in the Past Tense. And by the end, he might have found a way to live, Unconditionally, in the future - something we all have to do anyway.
Roth's morally hyperventilating novella made me want to read his early books. Yu's enthralling debut makes me yearn for his next one.
• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on October 10, 2010