Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2008

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

plot_against_usa I haven’t read anything by Philip Roth for years, not since Portnoy’s Complaint (memorable only for its notoriety) in the early 70s, but the title of this one intrigued me. I certainly knew nothing about the controversy it aroused in the US – perhaps I missed an article in the papers at the time? (It was published in 2004).

It’s an interesting book.  Not as well written as I’d expect from a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, but then IMO there’s some rather ordinary books amongst the PP winners (e.g. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley or that unspeakably dull Gilead by Marilynn Robinson).  There’s also a couple of shabby efforts in our own Miles Franklin award (e.g. The White Earth by Andrew McGahan) so we should know not to expect great things from every award-winning author.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Anyway, the plot revolves around an alternate history of the US, one in which the aviator Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 election instead of F.D. Roosevelt and unleashed latent American anti-Semitism.  The narrator is a young Philip Roth, who reacts to increasing discrimination in confusion and terror, not least because of the way it tears his family apart and because of his own complicity.  Saving himself from a form of deportation, young Philip bears a guilty conscience to the end of his days because his plea to an influential aunt results in tragedy when a schoolmate, Sheldon, is sent instead.

200px-lindberghstlouis

Roth also explores the way media creates celebrities without really knowing much about them.  Lindberg was famous for his record-breaking non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris – he was the hero of small boys everywhere, and Philip treasures stamps depicting his flight while his brother Sandy, a compulsive artist, sketches him obsessively.  Lindberg gained enormous public sympathy when his son was kidnapped and murdered, and he was idolised for developing the American aviation industry.  However, while the media continues to lionise him, Philip’s father becomes aware of Lindberg’s support for the isolationist America First movement, and the aviator-turned-politician becomes a villain in their Jewish household.  They are devastated when he wins the election because they want America to support Britain in the war against the Nazis.

The media is complicit in Lindberg’s Nazi sympathetic views – which are depicted as wholesome, open-hearted efforts to protect the American way of life.  Sandy is persuaded by his Aunt Evelyn to spend his summers at an all-American tobacco farm in Kentucky, as part of the First Folks program, run by the Office of American Absorption.  When he returns, he rejects much of Jewish life.  (His parents are liberal, lower middle-class Jews).  This aunt’s relationship with a pro-Lindberg rabbi is the catalyst for family breakdown when she is invited to attend a presidential dinner, and wants to take Sandy with her.

Alvin, an older boy adopted into the household when he was orphaned, rises to the challenge of defending freedom and goes to Canada to join the forces against Hitler, but his promising future catastrophically collapses when he returns disabled, embittered and angry.

Up to this point in the story, the novel’s plot seems reasonably credible, but it deteriorates from this point onward.  There are long, tedious bits about the politics of it all, as Lindberg allies with the Germans and becomes more overt in his hatred for Jews – but it all seems a bit far-fetched.  (Yes, I know, the Holocaust would seem far-fetched if we didn’t know that it had actually happened.  And then again, America has some unholy alliances in its War on Terror, and has compromised on some treasured freedoms, so maybe Roth’s plot is not so unlikely).  But it gets downright silly when Lindberg’s plane disappears and everyone turns on the Jews until his wife intervenes with a radio broadcast denying rumours from overseas that Lindberg was part of an elaborate plot to help Hitler only because his kidnapped son was in Germany.  Then FDR gets back into power, and the US joins Britain against the Nazis, a political transformation that seems entirely unlikely after what has gone before, and a ridiculous resolution to the novel.

Roth’s own experiences of antiSemitism have clearly influenced this book, and I find it very saddening that Jews anywhere still have to confront these attitudes.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this book will help.

This book is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


Responses

  1. […] Teresa (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)9. tanabata (Wuthering Heights)10. Irish ( The Bell Jar )11. Lisa Hill (The Plot Against America)12. Lisa Hill (The Hours)13. Lisa Hill (The Things They Carried)14. Wendy (The Robber […]

  2. I like your review. I also had mixed feelings about the book, which is not one of Roth’s best. Patches were quite good, but other patches seemed very contrived, especially the Walter Winchell stuff (if I remember correctly — it’s been a couple of years). Winchell was a celebrity-obsessed pseudo-newsman of absolutely no political or social distinction. So there!

    • I love it when we’ve read the same books, Nancy! I would like to read more Roth, it seems a shame that I’ve only read this one and Portnoy. Is there one in particular that you’d suggest? The Breast is listed in 1001 Books – do you know if that’s any good?

  3. Yes. Here are my comments on two that I enjoyed,
    The Human Stain: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/philip-roth-the-human-stain/ – in which Roth does a job on political correctness
    American Pastoral: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/philip-roth-american-pastoral/ – the disjunction between the generations, among other things.

    In these novels Roth takes on contemporary American life, not a speculation about what might have been.

    And then, just for fun look for his early novella Goodbye Columbus.


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