Tim O'Neil looks at Roth's latest, The Plot Against America: a book not so much about the alternate history as about the nature and character of .
[The] unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as "History", harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as "History", harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
-- Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
Philip Roth is a Jew. This one fact is absolutely elementary to any understanding of the man's work: most people, before even beginning Portnoy's Complaint or The Human Stain or whatever their first exposure, have an image formed in their head of Roth as the foremost living Jewish-American writer. There's a hyphen in that phrase and both components carry a similar weight. Roth is a Jew who lives a life unimaginable by hundreds of prior generations of Jews because he lives in America; and by that same token he is also an American informed by the unique antiquity of his religious inheritance -- often, in the case of Roth, whether he likes it or not.
The Israeli author Amos Oz, in a profile published in the 8 November 2004 issue of The New Yorker, made an interesting reference to Roth, as well as the other significant Jewish-American literary figures of his generation, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. Speaking, as David Remnick recounts, "not merely indifferent to those writers but even haughtily dismissive of their work and their subjects", Oz explains:
"Tongue in cheek, I can imagine myself having ended up as one of the Jewish-American writers of Russian background writing mostly about the neuroses of immigrants and their offspring . . . This probably would be my subject. I wouldn't be writing about the desert or the starry nights of the country. To some extent as a reader I have some problems . . . I have a certain problem with indoors literature . . .
Coming from someone described by Remnick as "the best-known novelist in Israel", the dismissal carries a distinguished heft. Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939 and has been a citizen of Israel for as long as there has been an Israel. Earlier in the profile, Remnick had even ventured to make the damning observation that "[in] a novel like Philip Roth's American Pastoral, history seems to assault the characters, wreaking havoc on a desire for tranquility; it arrives as a shock. This has never been possible in Oz's part of the world . . ."
The formal concept of an end to history is at least as old as Francis Fukayama's 1992 book The End of History. But the notion -- the very idea that history could somehow be brought to a halt, to cease to exert an influence on our individual lives -- is uniquely, almost gratuitously Western. And yet despite the reapolitik caveats granted by members of both the far right (an ideological label that most would agree belongs to Fukayama) and the far left (Chomsky and his ilk), most Americans of any bent believe very strongly that the relative peace and undisturbed ahistorical nature of their lives is not only a given, but that it is somehow natural. Given this, it's easy to understand why so many people were so profoundly shocked by 9/11; not merely by the act itself, which was of course shocking, but by a deeply ontological conviction that these things just don't happen anymore, at least not to us.
So is there any surprise that a Jewish writer from one of the most consistently beleaguered countries in the world would fail to see the literature of his American counterparts as anything less than decadent? Very few Americans who have not served in the Armed Forces or law enforcement had ever had to experience the reality of literal life or death struggle on anything more than the inconceivably abstract level of the Cold War. Suddenly, with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, every American had been wrenched back from their lofty perch of indifference and pushed into a swift rapprochement with brutal, unexpected, malevolent, indiscriminate history.
This kind of trauma is at the heart of The Plot Against America. Imagine if you will a Presidential election that had seemed on the outset -- after eight years of increasing prosperity in the wake of economic uncertainty -- to be a simple rout for the Democrats, but which instead goes horribly wrong. The Republicans field a novice politician with immense personal charisma and an instantly recognizable name who deals the experienced incumbent a surprising defeat. Suddenly, everything changes as the entire direction of government and civil society turns overnight. Something has gone terribly wrong, and the subsequent erosion of civil liberties and increased isolationist tendencies bear out the idea that America has taken a wrong turn somewhere very important.
Of course, the election in question is the election of 1940, and the surprising Republican candidate is Charles A. Lindbergh -- but don't feel bad if for some strange reason you thought I was referring to something else. History comes creeping home for America, particularly its Jewish citizens, as noted anti-Semite Lindbergh implements a series of policies -- primarily the abstention of America from the European war -- aimed at appeasing the fascist powers and isolating America from her traditional European allies. Plus, there's the question of what exactly this means for the Jewish citizens of America, left to suffer as they await the slow but inevitable arrival of proto-Fascist policies intended to change their lives for the worse.
But The Plot Against America is no mere historical pageant -- it is also, perhaps more importantly, a bildungsroman, a memoir of childhood and a record of the protagonist's emerging maturity. But who is this protagonist? None other than young Philip Roth of Newark, New Jersey, eight years old at the time of Lindbergh's inauguration.
Any reader who encounters Roth in the pages of this book -- and it is a gradual realization, the narrator's name hidden until a good ways into the book -- will be justified in wondering just how it all holds together. Why choose himself for his protagonist? It certainly simplifies things, placing the present Roth in the position of narrating his own life and the dimensions of his own family from a decidedly familiar vantage point. But it also invites the reader to look more closely as to how the book is constructed.
Structurally, the book is slightly creaky, effectively split between the adult Roth's narration of alternate historical events and his narration of the family's reactions to said history. Given the story he's telling, and his choice to tell it in the first person, it would have been hard to construct it any other way. But the effect is slightly uneasy. It produces an oddly imbalanced sensation in the reader, wherein the passages dealing directly with the alternate history carry heavier ballast than the ongoing family turmoil in the Roth's household.
It's fascinating to see Roth inhabit and animate the likes of Lindbergh, Franklin Roosevelt, Walter Winchell, and Fiorello La Guardia -- familiar names whose voices Roth impersonates with an almost surreal talent for mimicry. This is part of the thrill of alternate histories, and it is to Roth's credit that despite the occasional (and, as in the case of Lindbergh, literal) flights of fancy, the actors are confined to perfectly conceivable extrapolations of their plausible behavior. The events which occur as a result of the ersatz Presidency -- the ambiguous fear, the paranoia, the demagoguery and the riots and the general societal unrest that threatens to bring America to its knees -- are, for the most part, all too possible results of these circumstances.
In the end, however, this is not so much a book about the alternate history as about the nature and character of Jewishness. Roth tips the reader off to this fact late in the book when he makes a reference to what is, in the context of the book, a future event -- the 1968 assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy -- that unfolds in exactly the same manner on the world of Lindbergh's disastrous presidency as on our own. When the macroplot unfolds in its totality and the machinations of Lindbergh's presidency are revealed, there is an uncharacteristic patness implicit in the feverish utility with which Roth manages to replace the status quo of his new world. The events of the alternate timeline in which The Plot Against America occur are revealed as almost literally a nightmare in the lives of the characters: an extremely unpleasant and seemingly deadly interlude after which everyone wakes up and resumes their normal lives. At the end of the book Roth even manages to place Roosevelt back in the White House and have Japan deliver a sneak attack against America by early December -- December of 1942, but still, only one year lost on the march to inevitability.
The only lasting indicator of the trials is the way in which the characters -- Roth and his family -- have been tested by the imaginary turmoil and have risen, each in their own way, to heroic proportions. His mother and father are almost destroyed by the stress of trying to keep their family intact and upright in the face of unfathomable pressure and invisible fear. Just as in the real pressure-cooker of 1930s Germany, some Jews (wisely) run, some choose to trust the conciliatory words of their persecutors, and some turn against their communities. But the Roth's stay and, in one way or another, fight the insidious paranoia that threatens to tear them asunder.
So then, what's the point? It seems absurd on the face of it to construct such an elaborate fantasy scenario and then devote an implausible amount of energy to systematically dismantling said fictional framework. The answer is that despite the allure of a well-constructed fictional history, the characters are the heart of the narrative, and they should be the focus of our attentions, despite our guilty fascination with the alternate history shenanigans. Roth, as well, presumably, as his family and friends, are essentially the same in his world as in ours. They are also Jews, American Jews who by whatever random quirk of fate managed, in our real world, to unilaterally avoid the cataclysmic events that affected the remainder of the earth's Jewish population in the twentieth century -- World War II, the Holocaust, the Soviet persecutions, the trials of Zionism and the establishment and continuing peril of Israel. Could this be an example of elaborate long-distance survivors' guilt, a desire to exculpate an entire generation from the unpardonable sin of having lived a relatively blessed life?
Ultimately, this is the beating heart of The Plot Against America. Forget the lumpy parallel structure or those slightly creaky historical conceits of the book's final section. It is not a stylistic tour de force along the lines of American Pastoral or The Human Stain, although the off-center, slightly jerky narrative allows Roth the freedom to vamp to an enthusiastic, almost indulgent degree that belies his age. It's not about 9/11 or George W. Bush, or Watergate, although these signature events inform the narrative throughout, providing handy parallels which enable Roth to expand the plausible scope of the story by providing familiar analogy. Rather, the book is a testament to his family, and the character thereof, as if to look across the oceans of time and space towards the heart of the 20th century Jewish experience and say "although we were not tested as were you, we recognize your suffering nonetheless; and although we have not been tried, we are hard as well."