Ten years ago it would have been inconceivable for Philip Roth to publish a novel like The Plot Against America. From My Life as a Man to the blackly comic The Human Stain, Roth made it clear that the sexual and metaphysical politics of a man’s life and identity were his territory. America the big wide-open continent and the sweep of its history were best left to that pointillist John Updike.
But then, in the late ’90s, Roth began a series of novels about the evolution of American culture, beginning with the rupture of the 1960s (American Pastoral), then darting back into the corrosiveness of anti-communism in the 1950s (I Married a Communist), and then leaping ahead to the late ’90s and that period’s reactionary pogroms and the skewering of Bill Clinton (The Human Stain).
The Plot Against America is a literal prequel to these books, beginning as it does in 1940, but, in essence, it’s a hoary coda to that whole project. By linking the jittery fear of Jews being persecuted in America in the 1940s with a presidential election gone awry, Roth delivers a political fable that is likely to send a clear message to Americans as they head to the polls: Be very careful what you wish for.
As was the case in Roth’s Deception and Operation Shylock, this book is narrated by Philip Roth. Like the author, this “Philip” grows up in a working-class section of Newark, N.J., collecting stamps, thinking about baseball, and slipping in an out of the cracks of his family’s edifice. The family unit described here also bears more than a passing resemblance to the family Roth described in his 1988 memoir The Facts. There is an older and more successful brother, Sandy. There’s Bess, Philip’s watchful and loving (and sometimes smothering) Jewish mother. And then there’s his father, Herman, a powerful and impressively righteous father who works in life insurance.
The facts, tone and delivery of this opening section feel so much like a memoir that, once again, Roth has us reading fiction as fact—a nifty trick, especially when we begin feeling that what happens to Philip and his family is real. Roth breaks with reality, though, when he describes how in 1940, at the Republican National Convention, Charles Lindbergh is voted onto the ticket. In a dramatic shift of events, Lindbergh soars into office on a fury of isolationist feeling. He eagerly signs a non-aggression pact with Germany, and begins carrying out policies similar to those of the Nazi party. Jews become very, very afraid.
Political fables of this sort often die under the weight of their earnestness, but Roth never suffers from a lack of self-regard. For every bit of the book that is ominous, nearly finger-wagging or deeply moving, there is something silly and amusing. At one point, Roth overlaps with the creators of South Park by having America declare preemptive war on Canada. In another amusing twist, pioneering gossip columnist Walter Winchell becomes President Lindbergh’s chief opponent.
Although plot twists like this move the novel toward slapstick, Roth continues narrating with the same Jamesian baroqueness that made books like American Pastoral and The Human Stain such rich stews. Like Kafka, Roth understands that maintaining a straight face while he tells us something that is at once terrifying and hilarious puts a reader on a knife’s edge. Not knowing how we’re supposed to feel makes us feel both emotions at once.
Either way, it’s impossible not to think while reading this book that it will be talked about—a lot. And how people read this novel will say much about what Americans think of their country today. If you glance around and it seems like morning in America, chances are Roth’s scenario will seem farfetched, perhaps even un-American. But if you see the seeds of fascism in many of the Bush administration’s policies, then The Plot Against America will scare the bejeesus out of you.
THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA By Philip Roth, 391 pages Houghton Miflin $29 Available Oct. 5