The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
David Foster Wallace, in his review of John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time in 1997, coined the moniker “The Great White Narcissists” for Norman Mailer, John Updike and Philip Roth. He didn’t mean this in a completely negative way but for the 27 year old me it was enough to turn me off to these writers for the next twenty years. After Philip Roth’s death just a couple weeks ago and the attention given to Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America after the election of Donald Trump, I decided to at least give this white narcissist a chance. I have owned this book for at least ten years and finally plucked it off the shelf. Overall I was not disappointed.
This book is an alternative history.It tries to answer the question, what if FDR lost the 1940 presidential election to the isolationist and anti-Semite, Charles Lindbergh? The story follows a working class Jewish family from Newark, the Roths, as they try to come to grips with a government they put all of their hope and trust in, turning against them suddenly. Roth makes it clear that being a Jew in America before 1940 was not easy, but the election of a bigoted President and the motivation this gives his supporters takes the anxiety and danger to a whole new level. The first two thirds of this novel, with the backdrop of advancing fascism in America, is a fairly traditional family drama and coming of age story. It is told in the voice of an older narrator, Philip Roth, as a 7 year old child in 1940. He vividly describes what it might have been like to grow up on the streets of Newark in the 1940’s. The final third of the novel offers a shift in tone and pace that matches the absurd violence, fear mongering, and rampant conspiracy theories that overtake the Midwest, the South and East Coast (the West Coast barely seems to exist in this book) of America.
The parallels between the imagined world of this novel and the rise of Trumpism in America are striking in a few limited ways. I say imagined world but the American Fascist movement in the 1930’s was very real. Charles Lindbergh did speak at America First rallies that drew thousands of spectators that were sympathetic with Nazi Germany and “the Jewish Problem”. Roth gives the reader a helpful postscript that offers data on the real events and characters of the time including Lindbergh and Henry Ford. The audacity of Trump and his campaign using the phrase “America First” is shocking. This was literally the name of an American Fascist group in the 1930’s! But the one common thread in all reactionary governments is the fear of the Other and the fear of the unknown. Charismatic leaders have always been able to exploit this fear for their own advantages. Roth’s tweaking of history exposes this faultline in the American experience.
Roth has quite a bit to say about history and its relation to reality. He writes, “ The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” This struck me as rather profound. In hindsight everything seems obvious and events happen as they should and life continues but as we live through the difficult times it all seems like a frightening disaster and the world is coming to an end. I was reminded of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote as I read this novel, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Is this really true? Living in the times we do now and in the imagined world of Philip Roth I am not so sure. It seems like an optimistic idea but I suppose there is evidence to support the hope.
I am glad I read this novel, especially at this time and place in our history. I am not so sure I would have got as much out of it 5 years ago. We live in crazy times but I assume this can be said for many other times in the past. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone. Although I have not read much of Roth’s other work, this is one of his more conventional novels. At its essence it is a story about a boy, a family, and their closest friends trying to get by in the world. Something we can all appreciate and enjoy. Read it!