Where The Plot Goes Wrong


The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
400 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $26.

For another look at Roth's new novel, click here.

I will not say that The Plot Against America is Philip Roth's best book. Plenty of people are saying it, but I don't think that is true. The Plot is quite good, perhaps (splitting hairs?) it is among the best of Roth's books. And it is a book that could, because of its would-be oddness, prove to naysayers that Roth is indeed our greatest living writer. But it is not his best.

Surely, the hesitation some readers may have in picking up The Plot is based on an instinctive dismissal of the premise: that the United States in World War II, following the defeat of Roosevelt by the anti-Semitic and fascistic Charles Lindbergh, could have nearly sided with Nazi Germany and begun shifting its Jewish population to remote pseudo-concentration camps. To some readers it sounds hokey. Even Roth acknowledges that the book is a departure for him. In the New York Times, he wrote that "I had no such book in mind nor was it a book of a kind I was looking to write."

The premise should not dissuade you. Roth is too talented a writer to send us a bad book. Remember, The Breast was preposterous, but it was also an amazing and surprisingly subtle novel, for a story about a man who turns into a female breast. If you've ever appreciated Roth, particularly his American trilogy, put aside your doubts. The Plot isn't just "Rothian," it is in many ways a synthesis of many of the best of Roth’s diverse accomplishments. The most obvious comparison that can be made is to the late Zuckerman booksThe Plot could be construed as looking at the '40s in the way that the others did the '50s, '60s, and '90s. But in telling it from the perspective of the Roth family, he delves into a sort of personal exploration—a mapping of the public life onto his private life—that gives us a reason to believe that this story is the one that matters most. This is the one that he can’t keep out of his own head, that he can’t see but through his own eyes.

Told from the perspective of seven- to nine-year-old Philip Roth, the transformation of America from bulwark against tyranny into an abettor of the Axis powers is accomplished much as his stories always unfold: through the careful accumulation of details. In this case, those details are his “memories” of the rapidly evolving daily behaviors of those in the Roth family. An attention-starved aunt delights in her new acquaintances and powers when she signs on as an administrator in a Lindbergh agency dedicated to the "absorption" of American Jews into the Christian mainstream. Philip's older brother Sandy, once a powerful figure who could do no wrong, becomes a pariah after participating in a summer program that takes him deep into gentile America as a farmhand, working tobacco fields and returning with a Southern twang and a Christian's adoration of the Lindbergh administration. When, after the family becomes lost in the nation's capitol while vacationing soon after Lindbergh's election, his mother sobs when gazed upon by a Washington, D.C. traffic cop, the terror of the Jews is palpable. Her “voice was so feeble when she tried to speak that she couldn’t be heard above the traffic…‘It isn’t like living in a normal country anymore,’” she tells her sons. “‘I’m terribly sorry children—please forgive me.’” By the time that his father, level-headed, pacifistic and reasonable, swings into a violent rage, bloodying a delinquent and reckless cousin in their own dining room, the end is near—the politics of the nation have torn the family apart. What has happened to the country and to its Jews has happened both suddenly and gradually, but what has happened is not to be disbelieved.

Roth, when he has upset critics in the past, has never done it by stretching the bounds of plausibility. Instead, he's made his critics angry because they're uncomfortable—the terrible things that his characters do are not terrible because they are unrealistic. Instead they are terrible because they are utterly familiar. Characters steer themselves into catastrophe in tiny, pathetic ways (like lonely Aunt Evelyn, who ends up literally marrying into the Lindbergh administration by wedding his chief Jewish collaborator, a powerful rabbi). As in the American Trilogy, Roth's characters are whole people, caught up in a tumult, doing the best they can with typically limited abilities.

The approach is brave, and almost entirely a success. That success, unfortunately, makes the only real disappointment here a much more memorable one. In Chapter Eight, when, in the midst of a whirlwind recounting of the catastrophe of an American Kristallnacht, of martial law descending over the country, of a family friend's endangered child, left alone in the country as pogroms flare up around him, Roth takes his historical retelling away from the characters and into the fantastic, with a conspiracy-theory narrative going back to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. The rude shock of this entry of the implausible into what was otherwise a frighteningly real and relentless horror somewhat diminishes the whole, even after Roth discredits and shrugs the story off as unprovable, and anyway, beside the point. He'd have been right to leave it out entirely.

But its being there, and Roth’s writing in caveats around it rather than pressing “delete,” says something about its importance to him. In a work of fiction that masquerades as memoir (what an inversion of most writer’s looks at their past!), why the need to disavow this one thread of imagination, to suggest that, “OK, we know that this part is crazy, but, well, it’s what they say…”? The explanation of his anti-Semitic governance is neither an act of compassion or malice towards Lindbergh, towards the Jews, towards anybody. It’s a shrug. It’s a display of the sort of search for explanation, the infusion of meaning and reason into action that we always feel we need. Roth can’t accept that when discussing hate, hate that’s survived for centuries, and manifested itself without apparent cause time and again, that maybe, we can’t keep bothering to look for a trigger or explanation. Such an acceptance would be inhumane. And that, truly, would be un-Rothian.

In another writer’s hands, this tale would have been told almost entirely in the movements of the great and infamous men of the ’40s, and the conspiracy theory aspect of the telling would trump most else. In Roth’s hands, we suffer no such scenario: when the great men speak, they do so through the Roth family’s radio, and we experience the words of FDR, Walter Winchell, and La Guardia as they are experienced by a seven-year-old boy. Sitting by the radio, he awaits “the purgative Winchell scourge that would change everything…Winchell … had become an out-and-out god and more important by far than Adonoy.” In Roth’s hands, we’re all waiting by the radio, a once-implausible scenario now a dangerous reality.

Discussion Question

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