Philip Roth's 'Plot'

Of all the living, currently active American novelists, Philip Roth has been the most consistently brilliant. He's certainly my favorite ("The Great American Novel" is the only book I've read more than twice . . . more than that, actually), and since "The Counterlife" (1989), it would seem that the man can't write anything but masterpieces (even before that, his lesser works . . . and those were decades ago . . . had a touch of genius about them). So it goes somewhat without saying that when I saw his latest novel, "The Plot Against America", pop up on, it was only a matter of counting the weeks and days till I could get my hands on the thing. This is nearly a mathematical process: Philip Roth + New Novel = I'm there (the only other present-day novelist who produces this Pavlovian response in me is Tom Wolfe).

So now, having finally read "The Plot Against America", I'm somewhat dismayed that all I can say (coherently) about it is that it's the single most depressing book Philip Roth has written (and I've read them all). Not that it's a literary disappointment or that it isn't on par with the rest of his output. It is. It's just that I found his scenario of a fictional Presidency of Charles A. Lindbergh in 1940 and its traumatic impact on his own, non-fictional family during that period to be disturbing in a way I'm at a loss to fully comprehend. It certainly disturbed me more than that other 'America-slips-into-Fascism' nightmare novel, Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here" (1936), which seems almost cartoonish in comparison to Roth's vision.

Roth paints his portrait of an America slowly embracing a kind of tacit (but no less insidious) national Anti-Semitism within such an accurate historical frame (few works of the imagination are this well researched) that it was like encountering some lost chapter of our history that had been deliberately forgotten until he, Philip Roth, decided to revive it. As the story of Lindbergh's ascension to the White House and all that it portends for American Jews unfolded, I kept thinking that this could, very easily, have happened exactly as Roth details it. Add to this the step-by-step disintegration of Roth's family in the aftermath and the novel doesn't exactly make for a breezy reading experience.

Perhaps the times we're living in has something to do with why I was so unnerved by this book. This godforsaken election, I mean. While I don't think George W. Bush has either the ability or the inclination to usher in the sort of cultural and religious hatred that someone such as Lindbergh could have inspired among the populace, I'd be lying if I said that I didn't look at the prospect of another four years of his serving as our President with a certain degree of real dread. But that isn't even an inadequate explanation for my reaction, is it? I suppose what I'm saying is that while I recommend "The Plot Against America", I don't think I can yet say that I'm glad I read it.


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Tom Sutpen said...

I missed any discussions of Lindbergh over at ramp-f, but Roth's take on Lucky Lindy is pretty much backed up by history. He was a White supremacist and an anti-semite of the first order, and he had an unhealthy respect for German militarism in the form of the Third Reich. If Lindbergh had ever been elected President . . . which is not unthinkable, given the man's popularity with the American public in those years . . . this country would not have entered World War II, and he probably would have formed some kind of alliance with Hitler (something a lot of people in Public Life back then were urging Franklin Roosevelt to do). To say the least, that would not have been good (particularly for a good number of Americans).

I should point out that near the end of the novel, Roth introduces a slightly bizarre, typically Rothian invention as to the origins of Lindbergh's anti-semitism. But it doesn't lessen the impact of the narrative that precedes it.

It could have happened. That's one thing that makes the novel so disturbing.

Tom Sutpen said...

My deepest apologies to the individual who posted the first comment on this topic: I accidentally deleted it. I tried to restore it after I saw what had happened, but apparently I can't so, again, I apologize.

To the best of my recollection this person asked if I'd seen a previous discussion on Charles Lindbergh in a newsgroup I frequent, and whether Lindbergh was really as potentially dangerous as Philip Roth makes him out to be in his novel.