by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, $26
Most reviews of Philip Roth's latest novel have mentioned that the book's premise represents a major departure from the author's previous work. On a superficial level, they're correct. Never before has Roth assayed the subgenre of speculative historical fiction, a field typically covered by less illustrious writers like Esther Forbes and Howard Fast. But The Plot Against America is every inch a Philip Roth novel--his best, in fact, since the brilliantly degenerate Sabbath's Theater (1995). And despite what some critics would have you believe, a discerning Roth reader can recognize immediately that the central theme of the great man's 27th book is the same as that of his great first novella, and of almost every great work he has produced in between: the conflicts that arise from Jewish assimilation into mainstream American culture.
The Plot Against America is a parallel history of the 20th century, a what-if story that follows the outrageous premise that FDR was defeated in his race for a third presidential term by the virile, isolationist, Nazi-sympathizing, all-American culture hero Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator whose celebrity allowed him to make pronouncements about the greatness of Adolf Hitler and the pernicious influence of people with "inferior blood." As late as September 11, 1941, real life Lindbergh was a vocal opponent of American intervention in the European war--a position that was made to look foolish and objectionable after the Pearl Harbor attack.
In Roth's fiction, Lindbergh trounces the "wheelchair-bound elitist Roosevelt" by running on a strict antiwar platform, and by pulling theatrical stunts like barnstorming into the 1940 Republican convention aboard the Spirit of St. Louis to ensure his nomination. Within weeks of taking office, he has signed a non-aggression pact with Germany and Japan (called, hilariously, "the Iceland understanding"), and ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity in the USA--for everyone but the Jews, that is. Slowly, insidiously, Jewish families are divided, Jewish neighborhoods are fractured, and all in the name of assimilation; these divisions and fractures are implemented under the bureaucratic aegis of the "Office of American Absorption." Before long, the sinister motives behind this "absorption" become clear and all hell--in the form of riots, pogroms, and military occupations of U.S. cities--breaks loose.
All of which would be little more than barely-veiled crypto-sci-fi paranoia porn for Greatest-Generation-o-philes were it not for the book's other strong conceit, the one that marks Plot as pure Roth: All this alternative history is seen through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy named Philip Roth, his big brother Sandy, and his parents, Herman and Bess. We've met this family before, as recurring characters and proxies in the novels and memoirs that comprise Roth's canon. What's different this time around is that Herman and Bess, who typically assume the role of timorous antagonists to the pursuit of individual liberty--recall Portnoy's kvetching mother and Zuckerman's hectoring father (whose dying word is "bastard"), to name but two of dozens--are here transformed into soothsayers for the fall of constitutional America. The elder generation's terror of anti-semitism, which Roth has teased out into countless episodes of hysterical humor and frustration, is given realistic human dimension in The Plot Against America, and the effect is both chilling and--in the context of Roth's past works--curiously reassuring. His parents' simplicity, their clear understanding of right and wrong, and their passionate defense of their family's essential American-ness is nothing short of heroic in this book, particularly in the eyes of their youngest son, the narrator and author.
Which raises the question that has dominated the discourse surrounding the book's genre experimentation: What is Roth up to? Is Plot an allegory for the current political situation? A hysterical rejoinder to 40 years of rabbinical criticism warning the author never to take his liberty for granted? Apologia or hoax? Juice or gravy? The fact that all these contradictory possibilities exist testifies to the book's true identity: another great chapter in Roth's brilliant career as the laureate of Jewish mischief. The unthinkable idea of a U.S. history that precludes (or at least postpones) WWII gives Roth the license to conjure an inverted America in which the undercurrent of racial and religious tension becomes the mainstream, and in which the implicit promise of the Jewish diaspora--a life beyond mere survival--is crushed under an all-American will to power.
The African-American social critic Stanley Crouch ridiculously labeled the novel "a sin against history" because it doesn't focus on the racist reality experienced by black Americans during this same time period. This is a little bit like damning Native Son for its failure to investigate the de facto anti-semitism of the Hoover administration, but Crouch's critique is worth mentioning because it mirrors a failure of readers and critics on both sides of the Roth divide.
The book's re-reckoning of history is both personal and universal, mobilized by Roth's belief in the arbitrary nature of truth (in this way, Plot could be a fifth chapter for The Counterlife, or a sequel to Operation Shylock). For all his mischief making, Roth's dissimulations have always been born of a rich appreciation for the freedom to choose one's own identity. Having spent an artistic lifetime repudiating the voices of Old World caution, Roth now presents a credible, realistic rendition of the ultimate Jewish I-told-you-so scenario of the 20th century: Nazis in the White House, a total collapse of all that is American.
The ramifications of this scenario are obviously global, but the book's concerns are defiantly parochial. Like many Roth novels, The Plot Against America may seem to be about The Jews, but like almost all Roth novels, it's really about these Jews--the Jews who lived in the little house on Summit Avenue in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, NJ--where the "American child of American parents in an American school in an American family in an American city in an America at peace with the world" discovered all the source material he would ever need.