The Plot against America by Philip Roth

The Plot against America is probably not what would be regarded as a typical Philip Roth novel. There is little sex or sweating in it likely to offend anyone. It is in part an 'alternative history', imagining what might have happened in the USA had Franklin Roosevelt been defeated in the 1940 presidential election by Charles Lindbergh, the weathly, handsome, personable and still relatively young aviator who had captured national attention by his solo flight across the Atlantic, and who won widespread sympathy when his small son was kidnapped and murdered. Lindbergh has many charismatic qualities, but in the book, as apparently in real life, he also displays significant anti-Semitic tendencies and a relatively tolerant attitude towards the German Third Reich.

But this is not just a political novel. It is told through the eyes of a partly fictional child, Philip Roth, a young Jewish boy growing up in an America which is gradually becoming a less and less attractive place in which to be a Jew. The novel is at one level a bildungsroman, and the family at its core, Philip, his older brother Sandy, and his parents Bess and Hermann, are vividly and convincingly created. There is clearly a limited autobiographical element - Philip in the novel was born in the same year as the novelist and haa a similar name and background. At one level this is a story of growing up in a Jewish enviornment at the time the novelist himself was growing up. By no means everything that happens in the family is the result of the political enviornment outdoors (though we do see its influences impact on the family and on its personal relationships).

Roth displays considerable skill in making his early 1940s America seem real. I particularly enjoyed the evocation of the family's big but sadly half-spoilt holiday in Washington. The gradual development of the anti-Semitism seems very well portrayed: we are not presented with Nazi Germany thinly disguised as America, Things start gradually and in ways that could be seem as innocuous. Some of the initiatives, such as 'encouraging' Jews to leave areas domianted by Jews and scatter among the rest of the community in rural areas, are shown to be supported by some members of the Jewish community, incluiding a leading rabbi, who seem prone to flattery and blind to their more sinister implications. Roth's world, with radio as the dominant communication and entertainment medium, and stamp collecting an obsession for small boys, seems convincingly real.

The book does have weaknesses. The ending, which sees Lindbergh mysteriously disappear after taking off on a solo flight and Roosevelt return to power, is not at all convincing. One critical has compared it to the deus ex machina said to be used to tie up opera plots in earlier centuries. An interest in the politics of the time would probably be an asset is one wished to enjoy the novel.

The novel has apparently been seen as a roman a clef about the George W. Bush administration, of which Roth was an open critic. Those who take this view note inter alia that the more forceful and unpleasant characters are those around the president, such as the vice president, rather than Lindbergh himself. However, Roth has denied the validity of this interpretation, and I cannot say the idea crossed my mind until I read some criticisms of the novel (which has been praised as one of Roth's best written works in years but damned as dull and as maligning the dead, Catholics, middle America, etc.)


Fayelawrence said...

I am up to p 220 and enjoying "Plot against America" very much. I think it is well written page turner with a engrossing plot. I note your comment on the ending and I have to say it hasnt disappointed me to know this because I thought it would have to be something like that.
I like the way the recent history is plotted in against the strongly drawn fictional characterisations . I will have another comment when I have finished in a couple of days.

John Kennedy said...

I am glad you have quite liked the Roth book, Faye. I enjoyed it but I was not sure it would be your 'cup of tea'. I shall be interested in your reactions after you get to the end.

I'm in Sydney at the moment, for some apparently not too serious medical reasons. I am reading a couple of detective novels lent by a friend, who is a keen devotee of the genre. (I am not, really). I got here a copy of a new novel, 'Morris in Iceland' which another friend suggested I read, both because I have an interest in Iceland and because the author, Alex Jones, was a colleague at Sydney University when I was briefly (in a lowly capacity) in the English Department there thirty or more years ago. I have just started it and it seems far more about Sydney than Iceland. m(Alex turned to novel writing after retiring after a career in linguistics, and his first book, 'Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything' was apparently a considerable success.)

I have brought along a copy of 'The Makioka Sisters' and look forward to starting it next.

John K.

Faye said...

Having now finished Roths novel - I am happy to comment that I found it a very powerful work .

The writing style is strong and traditional - and he is an engaging story teller. I was swept along with the suspense about what was going to be the outcome with the build up of the anti-semitism and its affect on the Roth family. The characterisations of the family members and their relationships were satisying elements of the novel for me. The high point of this was the role of the narrators Newark based mother in the dramatic telling of the tragedy involving young orphaned Jewish boy Seldon in Kentucky.

The issues about the ending and whether it all works are very worthwhile to ponder. In some ways it was almost as if it is a novel in two distinct parts - the family part with the political big picture as background to the social issues but always seen through the family's eyes and then the conspiracy theory "plot" big picture poitical history at the end section more obviously determining and illuminating the action and the family events - giving the reader a sense of the helplessness of ordinary people when extraordinary events take over a society.

The fictional use of real historical figures , settings and events in novel writing comes up as a discussion point a lot these days. I think Roth does it well. The extensive postscipt section where he gives a chronolgy and outline of speeches etc of some of the major real life historical persons who play imporatnt roles in the book is very illuminating in this regard for example , Pres Roosevelt. Mayor La Guardia of New York, aviator Charles Lindgergh, Columnist Walter Winchell. I would be very interested in hearing from history buffs about this one.
In summary i think it all worked well and was well worth reading from several points of view.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. I think my views are very similar to yours. It is a well-written traditional novel, and I quite frequently find myself thinking back over aspects of it. I liked your point about how the novel demonstrates the powerlessness of ordinary people in the face of extraordinary events. Roth gives one a sense of what it must be like to live in a society where things are taking a dramatic turn for the worst, as they have in countries like Fiji and Zimbabwe - or in many European countries in the 1930s and 1940s.