“The Plot against America” by Philip Roth
By Philip Roth
391 pages. Audio: 13 hours and 23 minutes
To evaluate the work of Philip Roth in a few hundred words is beyond impossible. He is certainly one of the great American writers of the late 20th and early 21st century and an attentive observer of American Jewish identity--and of human identity itself.
I admit that I find much of Roth’s early work unreadable. Portnoy’s Complaint, and Sabbath’s Theater are filthy, and The Great American Novel would be better described as a great American mess, to put it bluntly. But in 1997 he wrote an unquestioned classic in American Pastoral. And then at the very end of his career he wrote three superb short novels with one-word titles: Everyman, Nemesis, and Indignation. I highly recommend each one of these books.
But the book I wish to recommend here is his 2004 novel, The Plot against America. It will certainly rank alongside American Pastoral as one of Roth’s most engaging works. In this book he tackles one of the more daunting tasks for an author: he chooses to explore alternative history. So the conceit of the work is that the Republicans decide to run against Franklin Roosevelt with the only candidate who would have any chance to beat him: Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was thoroughly anti-Semitic, a critic of the war, and something of an admirer of Adolph Hitler. And in good alternative history fashion Lindberg wins. What happens in the midst of a world war when the American president is anti-Semitic and may be pro-Nazi?
Needless to say, this is a riveting setup. But Roth, as usual, shows less interest in world events except as the unavoidable backdrop to the very personal human dramas that it sets up. What happens to a typical Jewish family in America given the unthinkable: an anti-Semitic president?
It is clear that Roth isn’t just interested in history here. The book was written in 2004 in the midst of the presidency of George W. Bush, someone Roth clearly loathed. One can scarcely imagine what he would write in the midst of our current situation. But like many Jewish writers of a certain age, Roth takes seriously how nationalism, nativism, race hatred, and fear of the other can turn dangerous and then deadly. He takes seriously the fragility of the American democratic experience and the ever-present possibilities that it could all go very wrong.
One of the challenges of any alternative history is how to get things back on track after you’ve taken it down another path entirely, and Roth spends the last few pages creating a scenario to basically undo in history what his novel has done.
Non-Jewish readers, who I suppose will be most of the people reading this review, may wonder if this book has anything for them. Yes indeed! First of all, it’s a great novel. But it is also a reminder that we must always pay attention to those who may be most vulnerable to the machinations of power even if we are not one of those people. Because you never know what the future holds or who they will be coming for next.