Literature 11-19-2004

The Plot Against America

A review of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America published by Houghton Mifflin. $26.00


For about a decade now, news of a new Philip Roth novel has produced sighs of relief among readers; it’s reassured them that regardless of whatever fads and foolishness American writers and publishers have kept busy perpetrating between Roth books, there was at least one writer who was working with unrivaled precision, wit and command of language. Roth has been, in short, a main (if not the main) reason to continue reading American fiction. Part of his continuing appeal was that in each of his later novels, from 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater to 2001’s The Dying Animal, Roth has spun small, intimate stories so well that they wound up being about the biggest themes of all: sex, race, love, death, nation. That’s a trick all American heavyweights, from Mark Twain to Toni Morrison, know well. But it’s a tough trick.

The bad news about The Plot Against America is that it turns the trick inside out: it launches into an enormous theme and winds up with a story that feels strangely small. The novel’s set-up—a speculative account of American life during World War II with isolationist and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh as president—tends to swallow its driving narrative, the travails of a Newark Jewish family modeled roughly on Roth’s own childhood. That doesn’t make The Plot Against America a bad book; Roth remains seemingly incapable of writing such a thing. But it is two strong books weakly fused together.

The crack doesn’t immediately call attention to itself. The imagined nation under Lindbergh is a stunning and convincing one, and Roth’s skills give us a clear picture of the history-book details, from the battle at the Republican convention that nominates him and the barnstorming campaign that ensues, to the creepily familiar parade of upper-case events that tend to become the veneer of history: the Iceland Understanding, the Hawaii Understanding, the Office of American Absorption, New Order in Greater East Asia, the Good Neighbor Project. All are polite terms, it turns out, for an insidious if slow-moving attempt by the Lindbergh administration to bring Jewish enclaves to heel, be it by subtle propaganda aimed at children (the creepily-named Just Folks work program) or blatant attempts to collapse neighborhoods via the Homestead 42 program, an Orwellian revision of the 1862 Homestead Act. Getting the facts and nomenclature right is half the battle in speculative fiction, and Roth wins it easily.

Initially, the central narrative of the Roth family dovetails perfectly with this larger thematic design. …

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