It is an oft-stated cliché that many families are but one or two paychecks away from poverty. Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" suggests that perhaps U.S. society was, in 1940, one election surprise away from fascism. The Plot Against America also suggests that many families are but one step away from falling into dysfunctionality and despair. Although such a topic is susceptible of trite, formulaic prose, in the hands of Philip Roth it works remarkably well.
The story line is rather simple. Taking on the genre of alternate history (with which he shares with no small amount of irony at least some creative DNA with Newt Gingrich), Roth imagines a United States in which Charles Lindbergh storms the deadlocked 1940 Republican Convention, upsets Wendell Wilkie for the nomination, then barnstorms the nation in a novel election campaign that ousts FDR from the White House. Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War serves as the victorious campaign slogan. Slowly, but inexorably, U.S. isolationist policy grows stronger after it signs a non aggression pact with Germany and Japan. Britain grows weaker, and Lindbergh's cabinet and the Republican congress enact a series of laws that cause no small bit of consternation in America's Jewish community.
So far, there is nothing about the story line that is at all unusual in the alternate history genre. However, Roth writes his story through the eyes of one Phil Roth, youngest child of the Roth family of the Wequahic section of Newark. This alone sets The Plot apart from what is typically found in this genre. Roth's examination of the lives of big events through the eyes of a `little' man creates a subcontext that is rife with meaning for anyone who has experienced the joys and despairs of a family in crisis.
The Roth family, generally enjoying the rising working class/middle class fruits of life in mid-20th century America suddenly sees its internal world ripped asunder by these big events. The Roth family is, as is most of their Jewish neighbors, horrified at Lindbergh's election and justifiably fearful of what lies ahead. Unfortunately, their fears are well founded. Roth's Plot is as much, if not more, the story of the reaction of one family to this alternate history as the story of a nation at war with itself.
If Roth can be faulted for painting his alternate history with a broad and perhaps overly simpistic brush he cannot be faulted for the depth and insight into the life of a family tempest-tossed by a society gone mad. It is nuanced and meaningful. Roth's writing can be, and often is, stunning. As has always been his habit when he is on form, Roth is capable of crafting beautiful sentences and paragraphs. By looking at world-shattering events through the prism of a young man's eyes those events take on additional meaning because they can be understood on a familial rather than on a societal level.
Roth does have some fun with the historical figures that appear throughout the book. Walter Winchell, once the country's most famous radio reporters (and also the voice over narrator of the old Untouchables television series) leads the post-election campaign against Lindbergh and his cronies, most notably the viciously anti-Semitic Henry Ford. FDR and Fiorello LaGuardia also play important roles in Roth's alternate universe.
There are, no doubt, many readers that will resent what seems to be an attack on a person with the heroic stature of Lindbergh. That may be so, yet Roth does not go over the top in my opinion and by book's end does evoke more than a bit of sympathy for Lucky Lindy. Similarly, many have asserted that Roth's approach to the 1940 election, and the quasi-fascist oppression that followed, contains a rather blunt allegory to the 2004 election campaign. To that extent, no one should doubt Roth's probably political point of view. Again, that may be so. However, as if clear from the book's ultimate resolution (which should be left undisclosed in a review) that this society can sustain and repel challenges to the type of authoritarian regime imposed in Roth's alternate history is a far more optimistic world view than some of Roth's critics may credit him with.
Possible allegories aside, this is one of Roth's best efforts in recent years and I think that there is much to be gained by reading the book, no matter where ones current political sensibilities find their home. His prose is more concise than it has been for some time. For the first time in a long time, Roth seems more interested in telling a story in comprehensible declarative sentences than in creating sentences that do little more than establish his credentials as a `serious' writer. The Plot Against America can be enjoyed on any number of levels. It is not simply a parable of contemporary society and can be enjoyed simply for the quality of the writing.
I was not drawn to this book. I feared that like the character in Roth's early story "The Conversion of the Jews," whose view of history divided events into those that were good for the Jews and those that were bad for the Jews, the author intended to imagine a litany of fictional events that were bad for the Jews and somehow endemic to America. That didn't sound to me like fun reading. However, I wanted to see if Roth could meet the challenge he set for himself of blending fact with some whopping historical fiction and resolving his plot in a way that harmonizes with our present. The verdict: he failed. The surprise: the book was well worth reading anyway.
The story is told in a pseudo-autobiographical style through the eyes of young Philip Roth growing up in Newark, New Jersey during the time of the second world war. However, as the author points out early on, the fact that we know our history does not mean that our history is inevitable. In this story, pre-war isolationism finds an active political candidate in popular hero Charles Lindbergh, who wins the 1940 Republican presidential nomination and defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the general election. The new administration embarks on an isolationist foreign policy that culminates in secret accords with Germany and Japan that allow America to sidestep involvement in the war. The administration also begins a series of domestic policies that target the Jewish population for what is benignly called cultural absorbtion but may in fact be the harbinger of a domestic genocide. We see these things through the eyes of young Philip and his family, who try to separate suspicion and fear from paranoia as they sense their country turning against them.
The advancing menace and its impact on the family is well-portrayed. However, neither the plot nor the dramatic pace hold up. The author seems to run out of energy at a critical point, and has to telescope the events of the rising action and dramatic climax through a rather trite device, making these important story elements a precis rather than an exposition. And to redeem the flawed Lindbergh from a thorough demonization more harsh than he probably deserves, Roth relies on a plot twist that lacks all credibility.
Why is the book worth reading? For two reasons: first, for its portrayal of young Philip and his family, which is tender and insightful. Second, for the quality of the prose, which is flowing and evocative. And the secondary message of the story remains intriguing: that one is unlikely to fully recognize a turning point in history until it is too late to change its course; the avoidance of historical tragedy too often hinges on fortuitous events.
I would not recommend rushing out to buy this book, but if it somehow turns up on your reading table, neither would I consign it to the bottom of the stack.
on September 25, 2004
"The Plot Against America" is a remarkable and unexpected change for Philip Roth in two ways. The first difference is getting all the attention from the critics: he has written a political potboiler in an entirely different genre, a fable that recalls Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," Octavia Butler's "Kindred," and (of course) Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here."
But, second, this latest work is his most accessible and thickly plotted novel to date, and--in spite of the forceful political theme--it is also perhaps his mellowest work of fiction. Although the prose is identifiably Roth's, the narrative is a real page-turner merged with a loving family portrait.
Thanks to the media hoopla, the novel's storyline is already well-known: the book posits a United States where, in 1940, Charles Lindbergh becomes president. Roth scores a subtle political and historical point here: the reader soon realizes that President Lindbergh himself never expresses overtly anti-Semitic remarks or actions. Instead, the true threats to American democracy are the men Lindbergh chooses for his bipartisan government, including Democrat Burton Wheeler (as Vice President) and the virulently anti-Semitic Henry Ford (as Secretary of the Interior). Furthermore, remaining true to a policy of "American First" isolation (a view Lindbergh steadfastly supported in real life), the new administration negotiates a nonaggression pact with the German Nazi government, develops faith-based programs to "integrate" Jewish residents into American society (with the ostensibly secondary goal of separating them from each other), and maintains an aura of serenity and acquiescence in the face of a rising tide of domestic anti-Semitism. (The volume includes a 30-page appendix with true-life biographical summaries of the historical figures, as well as the complete text of Lindbergh's infamous 1941 speech accusing the British and Jews of conspiring to lead the United States into war.)
Yet that's only half the story. Roth's cautionary tale swings between the "alternate history" of the United States and the domestic drama of his own family. Told from the point of view of a seven-year-old Philip Roth, the novel is a riveting yet loving portrait of an average American family who fight and bicker about the most mundane matters in spite of the gathering storm. The most immediate concerns, from the perspective of the young narrator, are the condition of his beloved stamp collection, the hovering presence of the nerdy kid living in the apartment downstairs, the ghosts in the cellar, the grotesqueness of his good-for-nothing cousin's amputated leg, and (above all) the division among members of his household that result when his older brother, his aunt, and a local rabbi passionately support the goals of Lindbergh administration.
Although Roth's trademark wit and humor are always present (and there are some superbly hilarious one-liners and slapstick episodes), many of the elements one usually associates with his novels--graphic sex, profane language, belligerent characters, and odious behavior--are entirely subdued or missing. You won't find a protagonist like Mickey Sabbath in "The Plot Against America." Instead, the book's true heroes in the midst of this upheaval are Philip's parents, who struggle to save their extended family from their own despair and from outside danger. And the most poignant and memorable passage in the novel is when young Philip's idea of his mother undergoes a "startling change": that she is "a fellow creature," and he is "shocked by the revelation, and too young to comprehend that there was the strongest attachment of all."
I was all set to give this at least 4 stars--and then came the last fifty pages. I haven't been this disappointed with an ending since reading "Next" by James Hynes. (Admittedly that was only a few months ago.) Amazon's review calls that ending "ingenious." I would call it "far-fetched," "ridiculous," "implausible," "deux-ex-machina," and most of the 7 words you can't say on television. It's an ending that completely destroys an otherwise good novel.
This is one of those "alternate history" novels. Only Roth's is more plausible (until the end) than say Harry Turtledove's "Guns of the South" where time travelers give machine-guns to the south in the civil war. Roth's scenario all turns on Charles Lindbergh running for president in 1940 and winning. I'm not sure Lindy could have beat an experienced politician and campaigner like FDR even if he had run, but that's not important.
Instead of focusing on Lindbergh, FDR, or any historical persons, most of the story revolves around Philip Roth and his family. (Because if there's a subject Philip Roth really loves it's Philip Roth.) Philip is 7 at the start of the book and lives in a flat with his older brother Sandy, his insurance salesman father, his stay-at-home mother, and his orphaned cousin Alvin.
After Lindbergh takes office, his parents--especially his father--fear that America will turn into a fascist state like Nazi Germany. He has reason to fear when Lindy signs an "understanding" with Hitler to maintain peace between them. Cousin Alvin goes off to Canada to join the British in opposing the Nazis while Sandy becomes smitten with Lindbergh after a stint on a Kentucky farm through the "Just Folks" program that sends urban kids--mostly Jews--to rural areas to spend a summer.
That kind of cultural assimilation is the most anti-Semitic it gets through most of the book, except for an incident on a trip to Washington DC. Most of the time the Roth family's fear and paranoia is the real enemy. There are no concentration camps or gas chambers.
Most of the book then is a portrait of how fear can tear a family apart, as it nearly does the Roth family. Fissures form between Philip's father and Cousin Alvin, between Philip's father and Sandy, and between Philip's mother and her sister, who marries a rabbi who advises the new First Lady.
Where the book really goes astray is by trying to tack on a sort of happy ending. OK, here's your spoiler alert:
There's the spoiler space!
Anyway, in the last 50 pages, Walter Winchell makes wild accusations about Lindbergh on the air and gets fired. When he decides to run against Lindy (a campaign with as much chance as Stephen Colbert in 2012), he's assassinated in Louisville. This sparks riots and anti-Jewish attacks.
That's all fine. Where it really goes wrong is that Lindbergh flies to Louisville in the "Spirit of St. Louis" and delivers a brief speech to reassure people. After that he disappears! The plane presumably crashes somewhere. Like something out of "24" the new president starts arresting people right and left, including FDR. He even goes so far as to have Mrs. Lindbergh committed. But she escapes and delivers a speech accusing the new president of treason and he's arrested and a new election held. FDR wins this election and from there everything goes back to the timeline we know. The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and America enters the war.
And in less than 3 years we're victorious! That's the most implausible part of all. The Germans are more entrenched, as are the Japanese, and yet we defeat them in less time? That's absurd. This whole part becomes some bizarre patriotic flag-waving exercise that makes no sense at all. It also relies on the deux-ex-machina device of a plane crash, after which Roth piles one absurdity onto another.
It would have made more sense to end the book unhappily. Have the Roths flee to Canada. Have Lindbergh set up concentration camps. That would make sense. Trying to make this end in a somewhat happy fashion, especially one this implausible, does not work.
There, now you can't complain about the spoilers! The ending is one of those that makes me so angry and disappointed that it's hard to remember the rest of the book was good. Maybe not as good as "American Pastoral" or "Portnoy's Complaint" but still better than a lot of books.
It was still better than Michael Chabon's "Yiddish Policeman's Union" which is a similar Jewish-themed alternate history. That was wrapped in a lame Dan Brown-style thriller plot. Roth's family drama makes for a better read--at least until the end.
(Actually they both have terribly ridiculous endings. Maybe alternate histories just inspire that.)
That is all.
on March 7, 2005
I just started a book club for me and my friends. 7 guys, and this was our first book. Over 2 hours later we were still discussing the book!
One interesting thing about this book is that every person said they enjoyed reading the book, but there was about a 50/50 split on whether people would recommend the book or not.
Personally, I would recommend this book. I thought the premise was fascinating and frighteningly plausible. When you look at the plot summary, you think...no way, couldn't happen. Then as you read you start to see how every change can be broken down into a series of smaller more minor changes...everytime you think, well this isn't so bad, as long as it doesn't go any further.
As for the quality of the writing itself...the story is great, but the prose is sometimes difficult to wade through. For example, entire pages of dialogue between two characters is sometimes run into one continuous paragraph prompting the reader to go back and re-read asking, "Ok, so who said what here?"
Another distressing literary convention was Roth's penchant for giving away his own endings in one line, then going back to explain how that resolution happened. Frustrating to say the least. Just as the action would be reaching a climax he would blow the ending and lower your motivation for finding out how he got there from here.
So while I'm glad I read this book and enjoyed the story, I'm not sure I would have finished it as quickly or at all if I hadn't been reading it for a book club...the pressure to finish helped.
on April 2, 2006
"The Plot Against America" is in many ways like a John Grisham novel - a genre work. The flourishes and language use and phenomenal characterizations and symbolism of the renowned writer aren't in existence here - Roth tells the story as straightforwardly and methodically as any genre writer. Yet the book is not a masterful genre work: it doesn't keep suspense building at an appropriate rate; it's very clumsy in tying the loose ends together at the end.
The best thing to be said for "The Plot Against America" is the interesting "what-if?" subject matter: a reworking of history in which Charles Lindbergh, anti-Semite, runs for President and wins, and the US as a result stays out of World War II. It's a clever plot, which one would expect to be rich with allegory and moral weight. The story at first is entertaining, with a steadily building sense of foreboding. One expects that the mastery will be in the ending, in allusions to the present day, in some general warning to humanity about the banality of evil a la "1984" or "Brave New World".
But Roth is quite simply not that skilled or is not summoning that level of skill here. The ending is worse than clumsy. It removes any moral weight by trying to neatly wrap up every loose end and return history to its present course. The wrap-up is not too improbable given the situation, but it is much too sudden and takes away any purpose that was originally in the writing.
Charles Lindbergh is an excellent representative of the banality of evil. The OAA and Homestead 42 are obvious examples of disturbing programs that might have wormed their way into American society. Yet they are defeated before they have a chance to become much more than banal. The message that the book indirectly conveys (and I am not at all convinced it wants to convey) is: American society is resilient and its values continue regardless of its leaders or their policies.
Perhaps Roth is arguing that through the efforts of strongly morally opinionated people like Walter Winchell, and in spite of the efforts of appeasers like Rabbi Bengelsdorf, we are likely to defeat tyranny before it escalates to concentration camps and ethnic cleansing. It's not very clear. The book simply doesn't rise in any way to the level of such a renowned writer.
on October 7, 2004
I have never read any of Phillip Roth's other works, but I saw this one on the rack and I picked it up on a whim. I have always been a big fan of alternate history and WW II, so I figured that this would be right up my alley. I was right. Roth has a great descriptive voice, and you really get a feel for his 1940's era Newark. You also feel for the paranoia that grips the American Jewish community when Lindberg becomes president. I always enjoy a novel that immerses you in the lives of its protagonists, and I really got a feel for the dynamics of the Roth family during this difficult time. While this book doesn't have the sweeping scope or adventure undertones of most alternative history, it is still a worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys that era and the might-have-beens.
on July 11, 2005
I have just finished reading Philip Roth's latest novel and came away from it with a different perspective than, perhaps, other reviewers have shared. The story is about what would have happened if FDR had lost his run for a third presidential term to Charles Lindberg, an American hero as well as an isolationist and Nazi-sympathizer. The impact of this on the American Jewish community is told through the eyes of a young boy living in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey. The Jewish community is frightened by some of the actions and inactions taken by the new Lindberg administration. Rather than opposing Hitler's actions in Europe, the US agrees not to interfere. In the US, a government program sends Jewish children to spend a summer with non-Jewish families in other parts of the country; government pressure forces companies to transfer Jewish employees to other cities in order to disperse the Jewish population. Some Jewish families decide to move to Canada to avoid real and perceived US government actions while others elect to remain in their homes living in fear of what the government might do to them.
Rather than being a story about what happened in a fictionalized altered history of America, it may well be the story of the turmoil faced by Jews living in Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s as Hitler rose to power. Many Jews fled their established homes, communities, and businesses in order to seek refuge in the United States and elsewhere out of fear of what Hitler would do to them. Others chose not to leave thinking that things for them would get bad but not intolerable. This caused great conflict within families as the decisions to stay or leave were argued. History has shown us that those who fled were correct in their assessments while those who stayed behind paid for their decisions with their lives. The personal and family conflicts that must have occurred in every Jewish household in Europe over what each family should do are also described by Roth in this novel.
To understand modern European history and the Jewish experience, one must understand the impact that the Holocaust had on the Jewish culture. Moving the issues to a fictional family facing fear and oppression in the US is a highly effective way of telling the real story of the conflicts faced by those European Jews. Some hoped for the best and received the worst believing that the worst could never happen. The book causes the reader to ask him or herself a primary question: what would you have done if you had lived in Europe at the time of Hitler's rise to power?
This is a novel. I know it is all fiction. And yet ...
Philip Roth is a Pulitzer Prize winning America writer, his body of work spanning more than five decades. His style is not fancy. You won't remember an artistic turn of phrase or the poetic resonance of the words. But you remember the story, just as I remember some of his short stories in "Goodbye Columbus" which I read in the 1950s. His style has developed through the years. It's richer now, more abundant with words. There is one constant though. And that is his love for story.
In this unique novel, Mr. Roth takes us back to Newark, New Jersey in 1940. Narrated by a Jewish 10-year old boy, we get a sense of his non-religious Jewish neighborhood and the peaceful lifestyle of his family, born in America and loving their country. Of course they all know who Charles Lindbergh is. But they never thought it possible that he be elected President of the United States. His anti-Semitism is legendary but this is, after all, America. It shouldn't really matter that the President admires Hitler and starts signing pacts that promise to keep America out of the war in Europe.
We follow all this through the eyes of the young boy who watches with wonder the goings-on around him. His 14-year old brother joins a youth group and spends his summer vacation in Kentucky to become more Americanized. His older cousin runs away to Canada to enlist and returns as an amputee. His aunt marries a rabbi who is dazzled by Lindbergh and even goes to Washington to a reception for a well-known Nazi. His father, who is an insurance agent, refuses to be transferred to mid-America. And his mother tries hard to keep the family from turmoil. Though all this, there is a feeling of foreboding, and I felt I was right there, inside the young boy's head, as he experienced the events going on around him.
No. There are no concentration camps or gas ovens. And no, the horror can in no way compare to the experiences of the Jews in Europe. And yet, every time I picked up the book I felt chills. Some of it could be linked to politics today but that, of course in the eye of the beholder. This is fiction. But then why does it ring so true. This is not a pleasant book to read.
Mr. Roth is better in setting up the scene than he is in completing the story. Towards the end the twists and turns of the plot are a little convoluted and preposterous. But I sympathize with the writer's challenge because he's writing about an historical event that didn't happen and trying to make it real. And so I do not fault him for this. Instead, I applaud this rather unique novel which kept me awake at night thinking about what could have been.
on February 13, 2006
Part of my problem with The Plot Against America was, admittedly, expectations. I wasn't expecting a novel written from the viewpoint of a 7 - 9 year old kid. I wasn't expecting to get this story filtered through that one, narrow viewpoint. I don't know that the book would have been better or worse had it been written a different way, I just know that this discovery threw me.
The only thing that kept me reading was the characters, and even that petered out after a while. I was pretty much carried to the end by momentum, and then I found myself disappointed. I was hoping that history would be significantly altered after the events of the book and that Roth would give at least a glimpse of that. Nope. In fact, as far as I can tell, things went on pretty much as they do now after these events. No lasting repercussions on a large scale due to Charles Lindberg almost turning America fascist. That seems suspect to me. The book only takes place over two years, but those are two crucial years and a lot happens in them. I don't buy that America would just continue on a similar path.
My impression of the book is that it's a long-winded essay by the main character (little Phillip Roth) on how he came to be living with a kid he didn't like at all. The way the book reads and ends up, that's really how it feels. Most of the important wrap-ups at the end don't occur in the narrator's voice - Roth has to resort to 'newspaper' articles to explain all of what went on.
To further annoy me, Roth has a habit of introducing long exposition right smack dab in the middle of action. The narrator will say something like, "I went to the alley to find Alvin," and what follows is not what happens next, but five pages on why Alvin is in the alley and the life stories of all the people he's in the alley with. Finally, five pages later, we get back to the original action and the story can continue. Watching The Wonder Years was less painful than this.
There is only one useful thing about this book for me - I never realized, as I was growing up, the extent to which Jewish people are considered the "Other" in America. I didn't know that it was such a big deal. To me, Jewish people were white, and therefore not the Other around white people. Once I did realize it, it was easy to forget. Sometimes it takes a book or an article or a movie to jumpstart my memory.
This book was a big jumpstart. The exploration of how, in 1940, it would have been so easy for America to turn against its Jewish population is a good premise to explore, I think. Especially if you are Jewish. Just like that fabulous story in the Dark Matter antho, The Space Traders (Derrick Bell), had a premise I felt was worth exploring. I just didn't particularly enjoy the way The Plot Against America explored its premise. I wanted a different type of book, and that certainly colors how I felt about it when I started to read.