The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Vintage, 2005

The Plot Against America cover

This is Roth’s Altered History, set in a 1940s America where Charles Lindbergh became President – apparently mainly as a result of taking to the air on the campaign trail in the Spirit of St Louis – then forged an understanding with Hitler and so kept the US out of World War 2. Given Roth’s lineage the book unsurprisingly deals with the implications of this outcome for America’s Jews, who are increasingly made to feel alien in their own land. As a result, the Roth trademarks from the other books of his that I have read (Portnoy’s Complaint and My Life As A Man,) viz masturbation, obsessive sexuality and male angst, are muted, if not absent.

The story is rendered more rooted than it might have been otherwise by the fact that our narrator is named Philip Roth. We are hence invited to believe that the family depicted is the author’s own from his youth, reimagined in the changed circumstances. This allows Roth the author, through the medium of Mr Roth the character, to express more forcibly the anger that any citizen must feel in being deprived arbitrarily of the benefits of citizenship.

Coming from a mainstream literary perspective Roth’s handling of this material is distinctive. A Science Fiction author would likely have approached the scenario from a completely different direction. And Roth does that rather annoying mainstream thing of giving us a potted biography of every character who happens to pop up whether we need this information or not. In this case it may be of everyone whom the actual young Roth met in the 1940s. There are also longueurs in the narrative which would be absent in a more plot driven Altered History.

At times, too, so much background is loaded into it that the novel reads more like a history book. Roth presumably believes that his setting is too far removed from the present day to be accessible without it. This approach culminates in the penultimate chapter where the book ceases to be a novel at all and instead descends into a – nevertheless thoroughly readable, Roth’s prose easily encompasses exposition – recitation of events and a farrago of ever wilder conspiracy theories all told by Philip at one remove, rather than experienced by him at first hand. The unlikely heroine of the piece (and this is not really a spoiler as there’s nothing there to spoil) turns out to be Mrs Lindbergh. That the impact of these events is brought home to Philip in the final chapter, through the medium of his fellow-travelling Aunt and some former neighbours, in no way remedies the egregiousness of this colossal info dump. Quite simply this is not the way to write a piece of fiction; high- or lowbrow.

It has to be said that not much in the way of jeopardy ever befalls the Roth family, most of it lies in Mr Roth’s mind. Yes, Mr Roth has to change his job to a poorer one; but there are no outrageous restrictions on civil liberties, no concentration camps – only the intermittent attentions of an inquisitive FBI man and a later series of riots spilling over into pogroms which don’t affect the Roth family directly.

Ultimately the book is really a long discourse on what it means to be American (that is, I feel obliged to say, being a citizen of the US rather than born in the continent in which that country lies) and the inclusiveness that entails. Here is where more of the doubts creep in. Whatever Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic views may have been – and Roth goes some way to exculpate his Lindbergh from them – a fascist takeover in the US would surely have had other, more obvious, targets for dehumanisation. In the end, perhaps because he is unwilling to believe the worst of his fellow countrymen or else as a sop to their sensibilities Roth rather lets the US off the hook. This, I note, is in stark contrast to what the English SF writer Keith Roberts did for the UK in his excellent short story of a Nazi-dominated Britain, Weihnachtsabend.

Is The Plot Against America a commentary on the recent Bush administration? On how easy it is for freedoms to be subverted; how the price of freedom is eternal vigilance? If so, it is rather too diffuse to be effective.

I was so, so disappointed in this book. Its central idea has the potential to be huge but in his tight focus on the family Roth the author renders it far too small. Mainstream literature sometimes prides itself on illustrating the universal by anatomising the particular. In this context choosing as the narrative voice a boy between the ages of 7 and 9 is too limiting. The themes simply cannot be dealt with adequately from the young Philip’s perspective.

Before reading this I would have contended that Altered History in and of itself is always a subset of Science Fiction. The Plot Against America, however, is not SF, since Roth, within his plot, falls too short, even implicitly – never mind explicitly – of contrasting his scenario with what actually happened, and the book is the poorer for it.

But after the novel finishes we are provided with postscripts on the actual lives of historical characters mentioned in the text. Part of the joy of reading Altered History is in recognising figures such as these in their new context; one of the drawbacks is you might miss a few in the passing. Roth’s end notes can only be there to bolster his fiction; to say, “Look at the research I did – or the prodigious memory I have.” Had the novel been written halfway adequately these notes would be superfluous.

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