The Plot Against America
Jonathan Cape, 2004
At the most basic level, the drama played out on the world‚Äôs political stage is never far removed from the personal fears and anxieties that seem to be a permanent staple of modern life. Or at least that seems to be the thinking behind Philip Roth‚Äôs new novel, The Plot Against America. Anyone opening the book in hopes of uncovering weapons of mass destruction, Al-Qaeda cells, or a heads-on critique of the current US administration will be sorely disappointed however. What Roth offers instead is an alternative history ‚Äì an imagined ‚Äòwhat if‚Äô that allows the author and his readers to consider modern questions of nationalism, isolationism, and personal liberty in the safe space of a literary world that never truly existed.
In June 1940, the novel‚Äôs young Philip Roth is seven years old when Charles Lindbergh, the American aviator and popular cultural icon, is marked as the Republican party‚Äôs candidate for the presidency. For Roth and his largely Jewish neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey, Lindbergh‚Äôs quick ascendancy to political fame ushers in a climate of ‚Äòperpetual fear.‚Äô Lindbergh, after all, represents a rugged isolationist who promises to keep the United States out of ‚ÄòEurope‚Äôs war,‚Äô estranging American Jews who are anxious for Roosevelt and the United States to intervene on the behalf of European Jews. When Lindbergh carries the popular vote and secures the electoral vote of forty-six states, he immediately signs the ‚ÄòIceland Understanding‚Äô with Hitler, vaguely aligning the United States with Nazi goals and guaranteeing that the US will not defend Britain from Germany. The central crux of the novel‚Äôs preoccupation, however, occurs when Lindbergh ‚Äì a historically lukewarm anti-Semite ‚Äì entertains Nazi sympathies and begins to restrict the liberties of Jews in Roth‚Äôs Newark and the rest of the United States.
While the novel‚Äôs political crisis offers a powerful and provocative taste of Roth‚Äôs strong imagination, the most compelling moments are those in which national events intersect with Philip‚Äôs middle-class, New Jersey family. His mother takes a job in a woman‚Äôs clothing store, faithfully laying money aside in a Canadian bank in case the Roths are forced to leave behind both their country and their home. Philip‚Äôs older brother, Sandy, is dispatched to rural Kentucky for a summer with the ‚ÄòJust Folks‚Äô program, a scheme articulated by Lindbergh to assimilate Jewish children into typical American (i.e. Christian) norms. Buying into Lindbergh‚Äôs vision of the future, Sandy questions and almost discards his Jewish identity in the face of a cultural tide that he views as strongly progressive and anti-Jewish. Roth is at his best, however, in describing the effects of the American Fascist regime on Philip‚Äôs older cousin Alvin and his father. Rebelling against Lindbergh‚Äôs isolationism and what he views as American Jewish apathy, Alvin leaves behind ‚Äòthe Jews who are a disgrace to Jews‚Äô and joins the Canadian army on the British Front. His war career is short-lived, and he quickly returns to Newark minus the bottom-half of his left leg. For young Philip, sharing a bedroom with his handicapped cousin, the tragedy of the age is manifested in a physical reality: Alvin‚Äôs missing leg becomes representative of the way in which Lindbergh‚Äôs fascism has incapacitated all American Jews. Mustering his childhood energies to help carry Alvin through a difficult physical and spiritual recovery, Philip learns to bandage Alvin‚Äôs torn, infected stump:
I sat on the edge of my bed, turned up my left trouser leg, and, shocked to realize that what remained of Alvin‚Äôs leg was not much bigger than my own, set out to bandage myself. I‚Äôd spent the day at school mentally running through what I‚Äôd watched him do the night before, but at three-twenty, when I got home, I‚Äôd only just started to wrap the first bandage around an imaginary stump of my own when, against the flesh below my knee, I felt what turned out to be a ragged scab from the ulcerated underside of Alvin‚Äôs stump. The scab must have come loose during the night‚ÄîAlvin had either ignored it or failed to notice it‚Äîand now it was stuck to me and I was out way beyond what I could deal with. Though the heaves began in the bedroom, by racing for the back door and then down the back stairway to the cellar, I managed to position my head over the double sink seconds before the real puking began.
Philip‚Äôs experience of being ‚Äòout way beyond what I could deal with‚Äô is not a condition faced solely by the novel‚Äôs children. As Philip struggles to come to terms with an increasingly adult world, he is forced to watch the disintegration of his father, Herman, a strong and independent man made helpless by national events. His father‚Äôs emotional response is manifested in both grief and anger: Philip watches his father ‚Äòsob uncontrollably‚Äô after visiting Alvin in the hospital, yet later is forced to see Herman ‚Äòbloody his beloved older brother‚Äôs fatherless son.‚Äô Through all of this ‚Äì even in the loss of his safety, his career, and his rights ‚Äì Philip‚Äôs father holds on to a vision of a country where ‚Äòall men are created equal.‚Äô In another of the novel‚Äôs chilling moments, Herman Roth takes his family on a summer holiday to Washington, D.C., where the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument stand in stark contrast to the prevailing climate of the American populace. When a Lindbergh supporter labels him a ‚Äòloudmouth Jew‚Äô and criticizes his political leanings in the middle of a restaurant, a protesting Herman sings ‚ÄòOn the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away‚Äô in a ‚Äòbrisk cadence‚Ä¶loud enough for everyone in the cafeteria to hear.‚Äô And in one sense, Herman‚Äôs song is not so different from Roth‚Äôs novel: an imaginative protest and caution thrown at a world that is often too busy or too disengaged to keep a close eye on personal liberties.
At the novel‚Äôs end, after ‚Äòthe plot‚Äô has unfolded and ordinary American life is once again resumed, Philip confesses that he would never again ‚Äòbe able to revive that unfazed sense of security first fostered in a little child by a big, protective republic and his ferociously responsible parents.‚Äô That seems to be exactly Roth‚Äôs purpose in writing a frightening-yet-realistic historical saga, a reminder of the thin threads that bind a citizen‚Äôs life to the mechanisations of politics and history. But there are moments when the reader wonders whether nine-year-old Philip is really in a position to make such insightful claims. While Philip‚Äôs observations are vivid and relevant, the story occasionally exceeds the scope of a child‚Äôs perspective, leaving young Philip as none other than a ‚Äòboy masquerading as a man among men.‚Äô As the novel shifts its focus from family life in New Jersey to the unravelling of Lindberg‚Äôs presidency, Roth abandons Philip‚Äôs young-yet-determined voice for a selection of records ‚Äòdrawn from the archives of Newark‚Äôs Newsreel Theatre.‚Äô Roth does connect all the dots of the Lindbergh conspiracy tightly and answer most of the reader‚Äôs lingering questions, yet abandoning the protagonist for 26 pages of the most intense exposition seems to be one of the book‚Äôs key instabilities. Another weak spot lies the novel‚Äôs sudden ending, which wraps up the Lindbergh presidency and sees the United States back to normalcy but makes little comment on the implications of such a dark spot on the national consciousness.
The lack of a reflective ending leaves the primary burden of interpretative responsibility with the reader, whose world is hardly more secure than Philip‚Äôs own. At a time when the FBI can carefully monitor the library habits of ordinary Americans, Roth‚Äôs novel speaks strongly against the dangerous swells of patriotism and unquestioned political enthusiasm. Schoolteachers have long asserted that history can teach us a valuable lesson, or at least prevent a few repeated mistakes along the way. In The Plot Against America, Roth‚Äôs alternative history boldly suggests a few mistakes that we simply can‚Äôt afford to make at all.
Jacob Risinger is an American visiting student this year at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is currently completing a BA in English Literature from Middlebury College, Vermont.