A review of The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

As a distopia, the story effectively conveys the possibility that history could easily have been different, at the same time highlighting the delicacy of the structure of our current democracy–one that could change with little warning. There is plenty of polemic in this story, and the sense of “there but for the sake of…“ is intentionally unsettling, but the use of real names in a real context, along with real historic events, makes it difficult for the reader to fully engage with the story.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape (Random House)
ISBN 0224074539, RRP A$49.95, October 2004, hardcover

The Plot Against America is just a little bit unsettling, though perhaps for reasons other than those intended by Philip Roth. Blurring historical fact and fiction, it takes some time to get used to the narrative tone of this novel, which has a seven year old “Philip Roth” as its protagonist, and aviation hero “Charles A Lindbergh” as the key antagonist. Roth’s “real” family is also part of the story, including his artist brother Sandy and his parents, and it is set in a very similar family house in Newark New Jersey which Roth details in his autobiography. But this is not a memoir. Roth takes a “what if” scenario and carefully develops it, using as much historical fact as he could fit, and then fictionalises the rest. The plot itself is simple. The year is 1940, and Lindbergh runs an anti-war campaign for the presidency, and win. What follows is an exploration of what could have happened with a Lindbergh president, based on Lindbergh’s publicly positive statements about Hitler, the Service Cross medal presented to Lindbergh by the Nazis, the anti-Semitism expressed in his diaries, and his isolationist, anti-interventionist comments delivered at rallies at speeches.

As a distopia, the story effectively conveys the possibility that history could easily have been different, at the same time highlighting the delicacy of the structure of our current democracy–one that could change with little warning. There is plenty of polemic in this story, and the sense of “there but for the sake of…“ is intentionally unsettling, but the use of real names in a real context, along with real historic events, makes it difficult for the reader to fully engage with the story. It is simply impossible to forget that Lindbergh’s anti-war, anti-Semitic address was held in 1941 after the US joined the war, or that Lindbergh never ran for president, and that FDR was re-elected. Having said that, the relationship to current US policy has been pointed out by many critics, and this is effectively borne out by the strong narrative voice, of elder “fictionalised” Philip Roth, a thread which pulls together the past and the present:

The status conferred by economic and vocational advantage inclined them to believe that those who lacked their prestige were rebuffed by the larger society more because of insular clannishness than because of any pronounced taste for exclusiveness on the part of the Christian majority, and that neighborhoods like ours were less the result of discrimination than its breeding grounds. (217)

The use of Lindbergh is a clever trick to get attention, and also to allow those who recall his unpleasant remarks some point of connection (I remember my own grandfather’s vindictive response when I told him I was reading the A. Scott Berg biography: “that rabid anti-Semitic…”). However clever, these bits of historical “anti-realism” (as many have called them) and verbal asides make it difficult to engage with the actual beauty of Roth’s writing: his excellent characterisations and rather sensual depiction of Newark during the 1940s:

There were no trees for sale in our neighborhood–because there was no one to buy them–and so the month of December, if it smelled at all, smelled of something a shissing alley cat had tugged from an overturned garbage can in somebody’s yard, and of supper heating on the stove of a flat whose steamy kitchen window was open a crack to let in air from the alleyway, and of the bursts of noxious coal gas spewed from the furnace chimneys, and of the pail of ashes dragged up from the cellar to be emptied outdoors over slippery patches of sidewalk. (118)

Young Philip Roth is a sympathetic and sensitively drawn character, with whom the reader can empathise, as he tries to comprehend the way in which his secure world crumbles. Roth adroitly manages to convey the very realistic way in which he blames and even tortures himself over events such as the death of his downstairs neighbour and friend/nemesis Sheldon’s father, and then mother. The juxtaposition of Sheldon’s mother’s cozy warmth and young Roth’s agony over her death is one of the most moving and masterful scenes in the book; much more powerful than any of the colder narrations which tell (rather than show) how events transpired as anti-Semitism becomes rife, riots ensue, Lindbergh disappears, and ultimately the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Contrasted with the cartoonish Lindberghs, especially Ann Morrow, whose sensible words in the face of governmental insanity seem as contrived as the difficult ending, which seems designed only to explain the Lindbergh‘s “sell-out“ in the context of their own family crises (perhaps even parallelling the Roths‘, but which is so far fetched and even silly to work. Though politically the novel is patchy, struggling to make its thematic point (however powerful or politically accurate–the polemic would have worked better as non-fiction), from a novelistic point of view, the Roth family is perfectly drawn, and the drama which unfolds within it subtly and sensitively handled. Young Philip’s fear in the face of what happens, not just outside, but within the family unit is powerful, and drives the suspense forward. We watch Philip’s own minor mishaps as he and a friend follow “goyim” on the bus, as he runs away with his neighbour’s clothes and gets kicked by a horse. The family’s later disintegration, particularly when Philip’s father falls out with his wounded cousin Alvin is moves the plot forward and mirrors the demise of America in a very powerful way:

Blood spattered the length and breadth of our imitation Oriental rug, blood dripping from the splintered remains of our coffee table, blood smeared like a sign across my father’s forehead, blood spurting from my cousin’ s nose–and the two of them not so much fist fighting, no so much wresting 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, snaggletooth horns.(295)

Philip’s awakening as he begins to realise that his father and aunt are fallible, and that the world he lives in is unstable is part of what makes this book work, despite its unsettling, albeit interesting premise, and the negative impact of the older wiser Philip Roth narrator. As a family drama set in a tumultuous and perhaps immediately relevant setting, this is a serious and significant novel, despite its flaws.

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