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Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times Again

And so, back to the beginning of Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times, which started with Judith at Reader in the Wilderness but is now hosted by Katrina at Pining for the West.

These books sit on the very top of that bookcase I featured in the first of these posts, above the shelves that contain all my (read) Scottish books.

Books Once More

They’re here because they fit into the space – at least in the case of the three “What If…” books, What If?, More What If? and What If America? – anthologies of Altered History stories – and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Then there is Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Colin Greenland’s excellent Finding Helen, a Paul Torday, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Marina Lewycka’s A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, non-SF works by SF writers Brian Aldiss and Norman Spinrad, Robert Standish’s Elephant Walk and three books by Erich Maria Remarque including the incomparable All Quiet on the Western Front.

If I were filing my books thoroughly systematically these would all have to be moved.

Philip Roth

I heard on the radio news this morning that Philip Roth has died.

I must confess I have not read much of his work, apart from the (ahem) seminal Portnoy’s Complaint – which I was moved to sample partly because of the attention it received – and My Life as a Man which covered much the same ground. Anything you ever wanted know about living as a young(ish) male Jew in the USA was here.

I do remember being intrigued by a long ago television programme about him which featured, as I recall, his creation Nathan Zuckerman fantasising about Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust and making a new anonymous life for herself in (I think) the US, which may have been another spur to reading him.

I can’t say I much took to what seemed from the evidence of those two books to be his perennial subject matter but he was obviously an important US novelist of the second half of the twentieth century whether I favoured his work or not and his ability as a writer shone through in any case.

Much later I read his Altered History novel The Plot Against America which I reviewed on this blog here. The impulse behind his decision to write it was admirable – and arguably necessary – but I felt that overall it was an opportunity missed, that the punches the book threw were somewhat pulled.

Sadly that impulse might be even more necessary in today’s political climate than it was when he published it thirteen years ago.

Philip Milton Roth: 19/3/1933 – 22/5/2018. So it goes.

Speculative Fiction Not SF Shocker

They give with one hand and take away with the other….

Also in Saturday’s guardian review was the first part of the Guardian Book Club feature on Robert Harris’s Fatherland, wherein John Mullan says “Speculative fiction” might once have been synonymous with SF but now more strictly refers to an alternative, but plausible, historical scenario.

More strictly? There is a definition of speculative fiction which excludes SF?

This seems to me to be a dismissal of the more explicitly SF altered histories. Is Mullan attempting to distance his preferred examples from what he sees as less worthy; or am I too sensitive?

Nevertheless I had to laugh when Mullan immediately wrote that a modern classic of speculative fiction is Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. That book not only failed as a novel, it failed as an Altered History (for my review see here). Can a story where history is restored swiftly to the “right” path really be considered speculative? Is it not then an author’s ill-thought out musings, onanistic even?

I’ve not read Fatherland but from the description it seems to invest more into its scenario than Roth ever did in his.

In that extent Fatherland is SF, and Roth’s book isn’t.

Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2008. 553 p.

In the first part of the novel a shy boy called Robbie Coyle is growing up in a village called Kenzie in 1960s Scotland with the ambition of going into space. Since his father is an ardent socialist and anti-American Robbie therefore wants to be a cosmonaut. A frequent attender at his local library, he devours knowledge about the Soviet Union and discovers that “Russian is a language where some letters are written back to front and others are completely made up.” Quotes such as this display Crumey’s excellent ability to inhabit the world of a pre-adolescent. As he matures he starts to hear a voice in his head. The section ends with that voice saying, “I guess we’re not in Kenzie any more.”

The story then flips into a scenario of a Soviet-style Britain where a young adult Robert Coyle has been recruited into a space project to reach, before the wicked capitalists do so, what is possibly a black hole travelling through the solar system. The secret “Installation” where Robert is in training is suitably grim, the illustrations of the many compromises people have to make in such a society convincing, though whether dissidents could flourish there is another question. Perhaps this exists in the same British Democratic Republic which featured in the author’s Mobius Dick.

This central section could be considered an Altered History novel where the Jonbar Hinge lies in whether or not a man named Deuchar died while trying to rescue twins from drowning many years before the time the action is set. Yet its juxtaposition with the preceding and following parts, set in the “real” world, argues against this. And Crumey’s treatment of his subject matter does not have the feel of SF. The Soviet section can be read to be implicitly a figment of Robbie’s imagination. The subtlety of the point of divergence also marks this out from SF treatments of Altered Worlds. While Crumey pushes credibility a little by having characters in the central section behave and speak, or have the same names as, those in the book-end segments he does certainly avoid the trap into which Philip Roth fell in The Plot Against America of restoring the altered world to normal by the end.

The coda, a (present day?) exploration of the situation of Robbie’s ageing parents and a young boy who meets a mysterious stranger on a mission (which he is unwilling to explain) provides counterpoint and a resolution of sorts.

Sputnik Caledonia is excellently written and engaging, with convincing characters, but not quite as full of verve as Mobius Dick. I will look out for more Crumey, though.

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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