October 2004

Michael Schaub

fiction

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Critics' memories are notoriously short (at least according to certain authors and publishers), but I can't remember the last time a book received as much pre-publication hype as The Plot Against America. It's been reviewed in nearly every major publication in the English-speaking world, and Roth, never a huge fan of interviews, has granted more than one to book journalists in the States and the U.K. It's true that the word "hype" automatically conjures up images of attractive teenage writers with suspiciously large contracts, but there's no other word that could suffice for the thunderstorm of publicity that this novel has created. Don't blame Roth or his publishers -- The Plot Against America comes by its hype honestly. It's a provocative idea by one of the world's most celebrated writers. And more importantly, it's executed flawlessly. Get used to the sound of book lovers and literary types discussing this novel; The Plot Against America isn't going away anytime soon. It's not just a perfect book; it has the potential to change the face of American literature.

The Plot Against America marks Roth's return to the genre of alternate history, a conceit he explored to some degree in Operation Shylock, his 1994 novel about a doppelganger impostor traveling the world, pretending to be him, and urging a mass exodus of Jews out of Israel, and back to Europe. Like The Plot Against America, Operation Shylock was an alternate personal history. The Roth in Shylock was just past middle age, an older man dealing with the problems of older men (plus the additional problem of having his identity stolen by a self-styled "diasporist"). The Roth in The Plot Against America is eight, growing up in New Jersey in the early 1940s. It's an unexpectedly intimate portrait -- Roth shows signs of letting the fence between his real identity and his fictional identity disintegrate and disappear, though it's tough to imagine Roth playing his cards any way but very, very close to his chest. Some of Roth's readers have speculated for decades that all his books are about him -- not in the way that every author's books are about him or her, but in a more real, literal sense. The character Nathan Zuckerman, who has shown up most recently in the 2000 novel The Human Stain, is almost certainly a stand-in for Roth, though almost certainly very different from the man himself. But the eight-year-old Roth in The Plot Against America is so convincingly drawn, it's difficult to imagine him as anything else but a startlingly real portrait of the man himself.

The character may be startlingly real, but the history isn't. The Plot Against America starts with a paragraph that has already, perhaps, become famous, if the scores of book reviews that quote it are any indication: "Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of Jews." These lines set the tenor, and the plot, of the novel. It seems needless at this point to explain what (hopefully) most Americans already know -- Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator, was a vicious anti-Semite and Fascist who openly admired Hitler. In Roth's alternate history, Lindbergh runs for president as a Republican and defeats Franklin Roosevelt. The nation's decline into Fascism is slow but constant, under Lindbergh's "Just Folks" program. (The name "Just Folks" is one of the only funny moments in this dark, dark novel.) American Jews begin to flee, seeking refuge in Canada and elsewhere. Some of the unluckier ones end up in brainwashing camps in the middle American South. The story is about Roth's family, but it's a family in a truly broad sense of the word, including friends and neighbors, even strangers brought together by circumstance. Every revelation, every detail about the Lindbergh administration is fascinating and unexpected; it seems needless to reveal them here. This is as political a novel as Roth has written, though it's decidedly not a polemic -- which is a bit odd, considering the subject matter is some of the harshest Roth has dealt with. It's interesting to compare The Plot Against America with Our Gang, Roth's hilarious, biting satire of the Nixon administration. ("Satire" might be the wrong word to use here; as brilliant as Our Gang is, it contains not a trace of subtlety.)

Roth's characters have never been more beautifully drawn than they are in this novel, and fully realized characters have long been Roth's strong suit, from the doomed young couple in Goodbye, Columbus to the horny kid in Portnoy's Complaint to the sad, disgraced professor in The Human Stain. Never before, though, has Roth treated his characters with more palpable, almost painful compassion as he does here. It's perhaps notable that Roth the author presents Roth the character in such a gentle, feeling way; Roth has never been easy on himself, or his doppelgangers or analogs, or however you want to describe the various Roths and Zuckermans that have populated his novels through the years. It's his portrait of the Roth family that make The Plot Against America more personal than political -- the plot against America is the plot against the Roth family, and the plot against every Jewish family in America. Indeed, the book presents fairly convincing evidence for anyone who believes that the personal and the political are the same.

It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that The Plot Against America is being published just weeks before the 2004 American presidential election. There's the obvious parallel -- Roth's novel deals with the disastrous outcome of a presidential election; Americans (and all citizens of the world, really) are dealing with the possibility of another potentially disastrous election. Roth has stated clearly his disdain for the current president, and it's easy to read echos of George W. Bush in Charles Lindbergh. Even the name of Lindbergh's final solution ("Just Folks") hearkens to Bush's false good-ol'-boy style. But where Lindbergh was an isolationist, keeping America from liberating the European Jews who fell victim to the German Holocaust, Bush is the opposite, invading countries on false premises. President Lindbergh scapegoated the Jews; President Bush is scapegoating Arabs and Muslims. (It's a sign of the current political climate in America that the terms "Arab" and "Muslim" have become interchangeable, and are both used exclusively by conservatives to refer to Islamist terrorists.) There's a heartbreaking scene in Operation Shylock in which Roth visits the house of a Palestinian friend in the Israeli-occupied West Bank -- there's a sad, brief connection between two people who know intimately what it is to be displaced, to be homeless. Roth draws a similar connection in The Plot Against America, though it's an unwritten one -- it's essential to read this novel as soon as possible to fit it in its proper context. It is as much about 2004 as it is about 1940. Sixty-four years is not a long time, historically speaking, but it's still a bit scary how far we haven't come.

The only problem with The Plot Against America, from a critic's point of view, is that there's not much one can say in response to it. It is a perfect novel, something greater than a masterpiece, and on every page, Roth demonstrates a pure brilliance that has never really been matched in American letters. The real question for readers of American fiction isn't whether Roth is the best American novelist alive, but whether he's the best American novelist who has ever lived. You'll have to draw your own conclusion, but after reading this utterly perfect novel, there's no doubt in my mind that he's both, and that no one in the last century has even come close.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618509283
400 Pages