Sunday, December 05, 2004

A review of The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

"They live in a dream. We live in a nightmare."(p.76)

Those words are said by a character in Philip Roth's new novel, The Plot Against America, to describe what it's like for Jews living under an anti-Semitic presidency (Lindbergh defeats FDR in 1940) during the time of Adolf Hitler in this gripping alternative history novel, one of the most suspenseful page-turners I've read in ages. Actually, for me there were at least two big questions driving the suspense: 1) Are the characters who suspect an anti-Semitic plot to collaborate with the Nazis right, or are they merely being paranoid, their lack of trust being the source of the problems? and 2) given that the chapter titles indicate that the story starts in 1940 and ends in 1942, well before the next presidential election, how would Roth wrap up the plot? Could Roth resolve his story in a satisfactory way?

So as not to spoil, I won't answer the first question, but as for the second, I was thrilled to learn that the answer is an unequivocal Yes! The way Roth resolves the plot is nothing short of brilliant, taking the real pieces of history and sewing them together in an entirely different, revelatory way. The grand narrative makes you wonder if such a turn of events is simply preposterous or whether just possible it could have happened. In other words, it challenges what we take for granted, and that's just what I valued most in this story, that it really helped me see the potential of the alternative history genre as a new way of looking at history (a lesson I'm learning again, having read The Man in the High Castle, an excellent book by P.K. Dick). The point is, history normally feels like concrete, something settles that we take for granted. Alternative history forces us to realize that history is actually just a matter of the way the pieces, thrown up in the air, happened to come down and arrange themselves. The dice might have rolled so many other ways.

In the novel, the narrator, a stamp-collecting kid named Philip Roth (Roth has used his own name for characters in several books) has a nightmare in which a series of stamps commemorating the majestic American landscape transforms through the addition of the Nazi swastika. This change, emphasized in the book's cover art, is symbolic of the way alternate histories are always so close to us, of how close our America is (was) to becoming another. Young Philip's dream is, in a sense, an essential reduction of the novel itself. (This reminds me of how, in Dick's book, the character Tagomi reaches insight after meditating on an object of jewelry and envisions an alternative version of his world that shakes him up. In both books there is a key emphasis on the connection between various versions of reality.)

This idea, in turn, helps us to see our present in a new light. We come to understand, to appreciate anew the fact that, despite our sense of routine and order, the events of history are in flux at the present and that we are--all of us--agents of history. We are woken up to the fact that we have a role to play now, an influence. That's why Roth gives us not presidents as characters, but ordinary people.

"Because what's history?" he asked rhetorically when he was in his expansive dinnertime instructional mode. "History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue. Even what happens in this house to an ordinary man--that'll be history too someday." (p.180)

"And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic." (p.113-4)

This brings me to the next question, one that nagged me all throughout the book. Does the story speak to our historical moment? Is the story anti-Bush? (Is it, therefore, dated?) Having finished, I happily conclude that it's more complicated than a simple Yes or No could answer.

The book brings to mind many comparisons to our time. The 2000 election's weird popular/electoral schism, read through the prism of this book especially, looks like a moment in which history jumped the tracks and took a detour it wasn't supposed to take. Combined with the anxieties of the terrorism of 2001, our moment feels particularly out of joint. In Roth's book, FDR, who we know to have won four elections, loses in 1940 because of a chain of events starting with a showy stunt pulled by Charles Lindbergh. It's the kind of flashy moment that throws enough sparkle to confuse onlookers and make us wonder if it really could have been enough to change history. It's an exquisitely chosen scenario, plausible enough to sustain a serious reading of the story.

Aside from this big, rather loose parallel to our time, Roth very subtly weaves in some minor notes of comparison to our own time, occasionally revealing a sense of humor that wonderfully balances the growing note of terror and paranoia in the book. Some of Lindbergh's media-friendly stunts reminded me of George W. Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" Top Gun imitation, in which he flew onto a destroyer geared up like G.I. Joe. When we learn that Homestead 42, a piece of legislation that seems to have the worst intentions (much like the controversial Patriot Act today) was planned from the beginning of the presidential term, it reminded me of the outrage when many of us learned that the Iraq war was planned at the beginning of Bush's term but trotted out and sold as a spontaneous and necessary response to 9/11 (p.229). Also, on p. 243 we learn that there are rumors that Eleanor is considering running for office, the description almost perfectly doubling for Hillary Clinton ("still a popular figure whose blend of outspokenness and aristocratic reserve had gained her an enormous following among the party's liberal constituency as well as numerous mocking enemies in the right-wing press"). As another example, making a major character out of Walter Winchell put me in mind of similar media figures today, such as Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, etc. (Then there's also a hilarious dig at the New York Times, p.240-1, where Roth beautifully parodies the paper's compromise politics, a swipe that is every bit as relevant today as ever.)

But it's the way the book captures the tone of a divided nation that really nails what life has been like in the USA recently. Shortly after a scene in which the children receive a civics lecture from a projectionist, a newsreel audience is divided in its response: "a good half of the movie audience booed and hissed while the rest, including my father, clapped as loudly as they could." It reminds me of half a dozen moments I've seen or heard about, from the reaction to Moore's infamous Oscar acceptance speech to audience reactions at rock shows in Chicago. Roth portrays an America paralyzed because it's been divided, or hypnotized, or fooled, and once again his fictional America feels like a bull's-eye assessment of today's real America.

The overall tone of the novel, one of increasing anxiety and paranoia, strikes me as particularly important in the way it captures today's mood and reflects it back to us. For most of the course of the story, I had no idea which fears were justified, those of Philip's parents, who seem wise and experienced, or their critics. Of course, one tends to identify with the narrator, and this one sides with his parents, but despite author's, characters' and (most?) readers' instincts settling into agreement, the kinds of anxieties I had about "truths" in the novel mirrored the kinds of anxieties I have about truths while reading the news these days. (It feels like Roth "gets it," from a contemporary liberal's point of view, but I wonder if this "feeling" comes from me. When I read 1984, I felt agreement with Orwell, but Loui Menand argued in a brilliant essay not long ago that people of all political persuasions read Orwell and feel they agree. Is it the same with Roth's book?)

Roth's story is about Jews being targeted by the president, in a way that is rarely direct or overt, usually accompanied by public expressions of concern. (We're not trying to hurt you, only help you!) It reminded me of the way gays are targeted for political attack and exploited as scapegoats in today's politics while, all along, those doing the scapegoating deny any ill will towards gays. The insightful portrayal of Jews and "ghettos," their relationship to their communities for cultural sustenance and political protection, and how those needs can come into conflict with the Anglo-American majority, with their need to be Americans and to forge connections with the greater society often put me in mind of those issues for gays (and would no doubt be evocative for African Americans, as well as various other ethnic and religious minorities). Some of the characters openly criticize the heroes of the book for the way that their tribal loyalties undermine their own potential and opportunities in the wider society, and though these characters prove to be wrong about so much in the story, there's a bit of evidence that the narrator in his mature years (from which point this story is narrated) has gleaned some wisdom from their concerns (for example, p.337. "the wall of the ghetto (which had protected no one, certaily not from fear and the pathologies of exclusion)").

Roth demonstrates the value of family and ethnic/tribal identity as well as an understanding of the threats to that identity posed by assimilationism. Perhaps the most subtly nightmarish scenario in the book, in a plotline that involves Philip's older brother, is the program that sends Jewish children away from their families for extended periods of time, exploiting the family unit's weaknesses in order to sew discord and inner conflict. But it seems Roth's greatest venom is for the traitor Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who "koshers" Lindebergh for the electorate, thereby making him electable. (Such figures are common enough in today's politics--Clarence Thomas and Condi Rice come to mind.) The narrator's aunt, a former leftist unionist and activist, trades her lonely bachelorette life (and, seemingly, her ideals) to marry the rabbi, and she seems almost drunk with power and dizzy with access.

Family and community are far from idealized here. There's plenty of family conflict, climaxing with the confrontation between the narrator's father and his cousin Alvin, related in highly charged and memorable language that fills 6 pages:

"the two of them not so much fistfighting, not so much wrestling as caroming, with a terrible bony thwack colliding, rearing back and charging in like men with antlers branching from their brows, fantastical, cross-species creatures sprung from mythology into our living room and pulping each other's flesh with their massive, snaggletoothed horns"

That passage also, incidentally, illustrates Roth's consistent evocation of the male body and male sexuality, as when young Philip sees Alvin masturbate but doesn't understand the action, or when he notices the changes in his older brother's body after he returns from a summer of working on a farm. Roth shares this major theme/interest with John Updike, though Roth's writing has a completely different flavor.

In terms of literary quality, the book is clearly superior, and though it fully engaged my political understanding, it never boiled down to simple didacticism. It captures the full complexity of American politics. Politics and history aside, the story is a wonderful piece about the coming of age of a boy and his struggle to deal with adult fears, with injury of body--especially, memorably, Alvin's partially amputated leg; and with death, expressed in his imagination of ghosts, the basement as afterlife, and, for example, in the panic that overtakes him when he is locked inside a coffin-like bathroom. Philip's relationships with his brother, then his cousin Alvin, and then, most disturbingly, his neighbor and doppleganger Seldon (with their exchanged clothes) play out in an intriguing arc from failed hero worship to failed pest avoidance.

After a sedate first chapter, I found that Roth's gift for character sketches, like that of Steinheim, is excellent. His rhetorical style, with the exception of an annoying habit of inserting long lenths of material set off by dashes in the middle of a sentence, is graceful, clean and muscular. Initially I feared the book was being overhyped compared to other alternative histories merely because a big name of the literary world had written one (I'm always alert to possible snobbery towards the SF/Fantasy genres), but the book clearly rests on its own merits. I'm eager now to read more by Philip Roth, especially since his literary gifts and intellectual gifts seem equally dazzling.


I has so much to say about Roth's new book that it's been holding up the blogging. A couple final tidbits:

  • First, a stranger in a restaurant noticed me reading the new book, and it turned out he was a huge Roth fan (though he hadn't yet read the new book). Since this is the first Roth novel I've read, I asked him his favorites, expecting to hear American Pastoral or The Human Stain. Instead, he said Sabbath's Theater and Operation Shylock were his favorites and that, at least for laughs, Portnoy's Complaint must be read. (I replied that I'd certainly meant to read it for ages.) I always enjoy hearing the opinions of honest-to-God readers, supposedly a dying breed if you believe the streams of articles you read in the media.

  • A friend attended a reading recently by Roddy Doyle, at which time in response to some question or other, he apparently remarked that The Plot Against America is one of the best novels of the year and that it raised his blood pressure. He had to keep reminding himself...this didn't happen, this didn't happen. Since I think Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a work of genius, I had to mention it.



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