The Plot Against America

Talking about the alternate-history Orioles reminded me that I should say something about The Plot Against America, the Philip Roth novel about a beleaguered Jewish family in Newark during the Second World War — a war which the United States is sitting out, because fascist-friendly Charles Lindbergh unseated FDR in 1940 on a bipartisan isolationist platform.

The tough thing about alternate history is that you have to spend a certain amount of time explaining what’s alternate about it. Roth never figures out how to do this gracefully, and the book ends up with a lot of this stuff:

At press conferences, Roosevelt no longer bothered to make a derisive quip when questioned by newsmen about the unorthodox Lindbergh campaign, but simply moved on to discuss Churchill’s fear of an imminent German invasion of Britain or to announce that he would be asking Congress to fund the first American peacetime draft or to remind Hitler that the United States would not tolerate any interference with the transatlantic aid our merchant vessels were supplying to the British war effort. It was clear from the start that the president’s campaign was to consist of remaining in the White House, where, in contrast to what Secretary Ickes labeled Lindbergh’s “carnival antics,” he planned to address the hazards of the international situation with all the authority at his command, working around the clock if necessary.

This is slack stuff coming from a master like Roth. The quotation from Ickes seems particularly wedged in and strange. One naturally thinks of The Man in the High Castle, which presents a much more radically different America (one occupied by Germany and Japan) but without a lot of talk — the reader experiences occupation the way the characters do, as a largely unremarked feature of everyday life.

This is still a Philip Roth book, so most of it concerns not Roosevelt but a little kid named Philip Roth and his unarticulated battles with his family and the Jewish people, and all that stuff is just fine. There’s nothing to match the really searing parts of American Pastoral — the potential is there when the protagonist’s older brother tilts towards Lindbergh after an invigorating summer among the Gentiles in Kentucky, but Roth pulls back from this instead of heightening the contradictions.

What I thought was most charming about the book requires revealing the end, so I’ll put it after the break.

OK, what I thought was most charming about the book? That unlike a lot of alternate history fiction it seems stubbornly uninterested in mapping its main actors and issues onto non-alternate, non-historical politics. Instead, the book pulls off a neat and unsettling political trick; the sympathetic characters, the Roth family, spend the novel dreading America’s descent into outright fascism and anti-Semitism, while the more genteel and assimilated Jews, represented here by the sonorous and Southern Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, pooh-pooh these fears as shtetl nerves — it can’t happen here, they say, Americans aren’t like that.

And Bengelsdorf is right! When presented at the end of the novel with the unexpected opportunity to embrace all-out fascism, American Gentiles react with disgust and dismay, tossing out the Lindberghites and beating Hitler not much later than we did in the real world. Meanwhile, Walter Winchell, the lone publicist for the Roths’ point of view, thunders every week about Lindbergh’s secret pact with Hitler to hand over America’s Jews — a pact which the author gives us no reason, after the dust has cleared, to believe actually occurred.

I think a lot of people misread the book by taking the Roth’s fears as the truth of the novel. But in fact, whatever else TPAA is, it’s a Philip Roth novel: so Jewish anxiety is its subject or at least its setting, and is going to be analyzed, celebrated, angrily rejected, and joked about in roughly equal measure. If there’s an axiom of reading Philip Roth it is Don’t take anxious Jews at face value.

An worse misreading comes to us from James Wolcott, in the November 22, 2004 issue of the Nation:

Roth doesn’t make overexplicit the parallels between America’s fall to fascism under Lindbergh and Bush’s fear-based presidency. He doesn’t need to. The parallels are so richly implicit, they vibrate like harp strings, dissolving the distance between then and now, fact and fiction.

This makes the book much less interesting than it really is — as would a claim that Lindbergh’s forces stand for the contemporary anti-war movement, particuarly its hesitancy to kill people who like to kill Jews. Well, I’m sure a lot of writers for The Nation were feeling somewhat harried on November 22, 2004, so maybe the forced reading is forgivable — but not the richly implicit vibrating harp strings dissolving the distance between then and now, which really sounds like the opening panel of a particularly trippy issue of What If…? circa 1979.

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