15 December, 2004Issue 4.1FictionHistoryLiteratureNorth America

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Imagined History

Jacob Risinger

Philip Roth
The Plot Against America
Jonathan Cape, 2004
391 pages
ISBN 0224074539

At the most basic level, the drama played out on the world’s 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’s 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 – an imagined ‘what if’ 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’s young Philip Roth is seven years old when Charles Lindbergh, the American aviator and popular cultural icon, is marked as the Republican party’s candidate for the presidency. For Roth and his largely Jewish neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey, Lindbergh’s quick ascendancy to political fame ushers in a climate of ‘perpetual fear.’ Lindbergh, after all, represents a rugged isolationist who promises to keep the United States out of ‘Europe’s war,’ 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 ‘Iceland Understanding’ 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’s preoccupation, however, occurs when Lindbergh – a historically lukewarm anti-Semite – entertains Nazi sympathies and begins to restrict the liberties of Jews in Roth’s Newark and the rest of the United States.

While the novel’s political crisis offers a powerful and provocative taste of Roth’s strong imagination, the most compelling moments are those in which national events intersect with Philip’s middle-class, New Jersey family. His mother takes a job in a woman’s 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’s older brother, Sandy, is dispatched to rural Kentucky for a summer with the ‘Just Folks’ program, a scheme articulated by Lindbergh to assimilate Jewish children into typical American (i.e. Christian) norms. Buying into Lindbergh’s 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’s older cousin Alvin and his father. Rebelling against Lindbergh’s isolationism and what he views as American Jewish apathy, Alvin leaves behind ‘the Jews who are a disgrace to Jews’ 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’s missing leg becomes representative of the way in which Lindbergh’s 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’s 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’s leg was not much bigger than my own, set out to bandage myself. I’d spent the day at school mentally running through what I’d watched him do the night before, but at three-twenty, when I got home, I’d 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’s stump. The scab must have come loose during the night—Alvin had either ignored it or failed to notice it—and 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’s experience of being ‘out way beyond what I could deal with’ is not a condition faced solely by the novel’s 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’s emotional response is manifested in both grief and anger: Philip watches his father ‘sob uncontrollably’ after visiting Alvin in the hospital, yet later is forced to see Herman ‘bloody his beloved older brother’s fatherless son.’ Through all of this – even in the loss of his safety, his career, and his rights – Philip’s father holds on to a vision of a country where ‘all men are created equal.’ In another of the novel’s 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 ‘loudmouth Jew’ and criticizes his political leanings in the middle of a restaurant, a protesting Herman sings ‘On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away’ in a ‘brisk cadence…loud enough for everyone in the cafeteria to hear.’ And in one sense, Herman’s song is not so different from Roth’s 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’s end, after ‘the plot’ has unfolded and ordinary American life is once again resumed, Philip confesses that he would never again ‘be able to revive that unfazed sense of security first fostered in a little child by a big, protective republic and his ferociously responsible parents.’ That seems to be exactly Roth’s purpose in writing a frightening-yet-realistic historical saga, a reminder of the thin threads that bind a citizen’s 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’s observations are vivid and relevant, the story occasionally exceeds the scope of a child’s perspective, leaving young Philip as none other than a ‘boy masquerading as a man among men.’ As the novel shifts its focus from family life in New Jersey to the unravelling of Lindberg’s presidency, Roth abandons Philip’s young-yet-determined voice for a selection of records ‘drawn from the archives of Newark’s Newsreel Theatre.’ Roth does connect all the dots of the Lindbergh conspiracy tightly and answer most of the reader’s lingering questions, yet abandoning the protagonist for 26 pages of the most intense exposition seems to be one of the book’s key instabilities. Another weak spot lies the novel’s 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’s own. At a time when the FBI can carefully monitor the library habits of ordinary Americans, Roth’s 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’s alternative history boldly suggests a few mistakes that we simply can’t 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.