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It Didn't Happen Here

Tuesday, February 1, 2005
Philip Roth.
The Plot Against America.
Houghton Mifflin co. 400 pages. $26.00

If ever a modern novel were made for a political moment, it was Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America for the 2004 election. Here, from the pen of perhaps the nation’s finest living novelist — or at the very least, the finest active novelist, Saul Bellow having fallen silent and John Updike settled into a comfortable senescence — was a tale set in an alternate past, an almost-Nazi America, whose concerns seemed, at least to the American literati, to be as up-to-the-minute as the latest bbc broadcast or Frank Rich column. Roth’s novel opens a window into a world much like our own — a world rife with totalitarianism and anti-Semitism, with warfare abroad and repression looming at home; a world pervaded by what the narrator, a seven-year-old version of Philip Roth himself, calls “perpetual fear.” Small wonder that so many critics have shared Paul Berman’s sense that “a second novel, something from our own time,” lies “locked inside” the book, “banging furiously on the walls, trying to get out.”

The Plot Against America’s premise is well-known by now, but it bears repeating in all its disarming simplicity: In 1940, a deadlocked Republican convention is interrupted by the arrival — by plane, and in full pilot gear — of Charles Lindbergh, transatlantic flying ace, celebrity kidnap victim, famous isolationist, and homegrown anti-Semite. Riding a wave of enthusiasm, the gop delegates nominate him for president by acclamation, and Lindbergh commences a barnstorming plane tour of the country, pledging security and peace to a frightened country. He wins the election in a landslide, taking 46 states, fdr’s presidency is cut short after just two terms — and once in office, Lindbergh’s 1930s flirtation with fascism begins to take a more menacing shape.
All of this is told through the eyes of the seven-year-old “Phil,” the son of Philip Roth’s parents and the resident of his childhood neighborhood, Weequahic, the Jewish enclave of Newark that so many Rothian creations, from Alex Portnoy to Mickey Sabbath, have called home. The Roths’ domestic drama fills the foreground of the novel: the father and mother, Herman and Bess, struggling to provide for their children while anti-Semitic storm clouds gather; Phil’s orphan cousin Alvin, who joins the Canadian Army to fight Hitler and returns a cynic with a missing leg; and Phil’s brother Sandy, who rebels against the consensus of the local Jewish community and becomes a junior accomodationist to the Lindberghian new order.
The background, meanwhile, is a newsreel-style unfurling of Lindbergh’s dark design (or someone’s design, at any rate — Lindbergh, it turns out, may be more a pawn than a true quisling). First there are state visits, cordial diplomacy and treaties signed with Japan and Germany, who are left free to gobble up most of Asia and Europe; then the creation of the sinisterly named Office of American Absorption, which sends Jewish kids away for summers in the American heartland (Sandy takes such a trip and comes back with a Kentucky accent and contempt for his “ghetto Jew” parents); then a twisted revision of the Homestead Act, which aims to resettle entire Jewish families in the Midwest, the better to “enrich their Americanness”; and finally a rising tide of pogroms as the titular “plot” moves to its long-intended fulfillment.
All of this is nothing if not entertaining. But in the end, entertaining is all it is, even though the foregrounded Roth family drama is as psychologically acute as anything in the author’s work — a horribly plausible account of children and parents coping with encroaching political doom. The artfulness is only amplified by the author’s decision to unspool the entire novel through a seven-year-old’s eyes, which robs Roth of his usual libidinous avenue into the consciousness of his characters. There is almost no sex in The Plot Against America — save an agonizing scene where Phil catches the crippled Alvin masturbating against a basement wall — but the Newark narrative manages to be primal nonetheless, a gradual lowering itself into a well of childhood terrors. The “perpetual fear” that the narrator speaks of isn’t just the fear of fascism, the reader quickly realizes, but the endless smaller fears of boyhood: the fear of being embarrassed by his belligerently anti-Lindbergh father on a family trip to Washington; the fear (inspired by a neighbor’s suicide) that his father might kill himself; the fear of being locked in a neighbor’s bathroom (a set-piece that manages to be more breathless than the later pogrom scenes); and the fear of being different and excluded, manifested in the young Philip’s fantasy of running away from home to become a Catholic orphan, a Gentile rather than a Jew.
Hanging over everything, too, is the ultimate childhood terror: the fear of change, of growing up, of death, which makes even Lindbergh and the Nazis seem just one horseman of an inevitable apocalypse:
I felt woozy and thought I was going to faint. I’d never before looked at my house from a hiding place across the street and wished it was somebody else’s. I’d never before had twenty dollars in my pocket. I’d never before known anyone who’d seen his father hanging in a closet. I’d never before had to grow up at a pace like this. . . . I remained in bed with a high fever for six days, so weak and lifeless that the family doctor stopped by every evening to check on the progress of my disease, that not uncommon childhood ailment called why-can’t-it-be-the-way-it-was.

But the power of such passages is undone, again and again, by the creaking gears of the political “plot,” which is never convincing, never plausible, and which consistently undermines the drama of persecution unfolding in the streets and houses of Weequahic. Roth has set himself a nearly impossible task, it turns out — the creation of an American Diary of Anne Frank, you might say, whose pathos and pain is undercut at every turn by the reader’s knowledge that the whole thing is fantasy.

The fantasy could have been pulled off, perhaps, had Roth chosen to play it as such — to cultivate, for instance, the dreamlike atmosphere that pervades The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s classic World War ii what-if novel. Dick offers up an entirely implausible scenario — Germany and Japan victorious, and the continental U.S. partitioned between them — but he makes the implausibility a strength, using it to create a sense of hallucinatory misery among the characters, a sense of a world gone so far off its axis that reality itself may no longer be real. Or Roth might have pursued the careful realism of weaker alternative-history works like Robert Harris’s mid-’90s thriller Fatherland, which takes a reasonable “what-if” — the Germans winning the Battle of Britain — and spins an all-too-plausible scenario of a world divided by a U.S.-German Cold War, with an ongoing guerrilla conflict in the Urals and the Holocaust a carefully guarded Nazi state secret. Harris isn’t a tenth the writer Roth is, but his alternative history works in a way that Roth’s doesn’t, because his history works. With different tactics, and a few fortuitous accidents, the Nazis might have conquered Britain, might have taken Moscow, might have established mastery of Europe before the U.S. entered the war.

In the event, Roth’s novel ends up stranded somewhere in the middle ground between Dick and Harris, trapped by its combination of sharp realism and utter implausibility, and by the reader’s constant awareness that there is almost no conceivable series of events, from June of 1940 (when the path of Roth’s history diverges from ours) until November of that year, that would have resulted in the elevation of Charles Lindbergh to the Oval Office.
If there is such a train, Roth doesn’t bother to provide it — there are no stock market crashes or political scandals, no sudden catastrophes to explain how the New Deal coalition is so easily undone. Instead, through the eyes of young Phil and his radio-rapt family, we leap from the moment when the party of Wendell Wilkie decides to nominate a candidate recently decorated by Adolf Hitler to the November night when that same controversial, suspected-of-Nazi-sympathies Republican wins 57 percent of the popular vote, matching Eisenhower’s 1956 landslide. (In the real world, fdr beat Wilkie by ten percentage points.)
From this beginning, implausibility piles on implausibility. The non-aggression pacts with Japan and Germany pass without opposition from Congress or the press; Japan’s subsequent conquest of the entire Pacific is accepted phlegmatically by the American foreign policy establishment; the plans to “assimilate” urban Jewry move forward without much public debate (the Supreme Court is conspicuously absent from the entire narrative). In what is supposedly the same America that gave Roosevelt four consecutive terms, the only voice raised against Lindbergh belongs to the prototypical loudmouth Jew, Walter Winchell, who runs for president and immediately becomes “the man to beat” for the Democratic nomination. (One would think this last particularly unlikely in an America primed for pogroms.) Finally, the whole narrative rushes to a deus ex machina conclusion, which is hurried and even a little silly, as if the author simply became bored with his alternative world, or at least all too aware of its limitations, and wanted to wash his hands of it.
In truth, Roth seems faintly bored from the beginning: not with the Lindbergh plot itself or its intended Jewish victims, but with the rest of his alternate America, the country that has given Lindy his landslide and put the whole crypto-fascist scheme into motion. Roth is often a parochial writer, which is no bad thing — the  Newark Jews who populate his novels compare with Faulkner’s Mississippians or Joyce’s Dubliners in their richness and variety, and their astonishing interiority. But in The Plot Against America his parochialism betrays him. We never really come to believe in his alternate America, because Roth only shows us Newark (a Newark that isn’t any different from Newark as it actually was). The remainder of the country, the mysteriously pro-Lindbergh America, exists in the novel only as a source for Jewish isolation and the Roths’ mounting dread.
Indeed, aside from a few assimilationist Jews — like Lionel Bengelsdorf, a Newark rabbi who marries Roth’s Aunt Evelyn, much to the family’s consternation, and becomes a confidant of Lindbergh’s wife — and a few stray anti-Semites, we never actually meet any Lindbergh voters, let alone a Roosevelt voter (and by Roth’s accounting there should have been millions) who has thrown in his lot with Lindy. The author exerts no effort to explain or even illustrate Lindbergh’s appeal — his landslide win, his sky-high approval ratings — beyond having the pilot president take to the skies during moments of political difficulty and zip around the country, where the simple rubes of Middle (dare one say Red?) America greet his daring flights with what can only be described as the glee of a people primed for fascism.
Nor, tellingly, does Roth have time for the actual racial problems that beset   ’40s America. It is passing strange, to  say the least, that our finest living novelist has conjured up a tale of mid-century American fascism — complete, at one point, with a kkk assassin — in which the only black characters are the field hands on the Kentucky farm where the narrator’s brother summers and the “picturesquely grooved and crannied” bellhops in the Roths’ Washington hotel. (Nor does Roth seem aware of the irony of having as his novel’s political hero fdr, who actually did consign an entire ethnic group to hinterland internment camps.)
Still, all of this would be tolerable if Roth didn’t seem to be taking his implausible narrative of the Lindbergh ’40s so seriously. It’s not just the heavy realism of the Newark foreground that robs the novel of any hint of nightmare or hallucination (a quality he cultivated so well in Operation Shylock, probably his most political pre-Plot novel). There’s also the bizarrely overdone appendix, which runs for over twenty pages of smallish type, providing a “true chronology of the major figures” in the book, from Roosevelt and Lindbergh to lesser players like Winchell, Henry Ford (Lindbergh’s Secretary of Commerce) and Fiorello La Guardia.
In the book itself, Roth refers to these pages as merely a “reference for readers interested in tracking where historical fact ends and historical imagining begins.” But in an essay for the New York Times Book Review, published shortly after the book’s release, he was somewhat more upfront about his motives, describing the appendix “documentary evidence that underpins a historical unreality of 362 pages” and adding that he included it “in the hope of establishing the book as something other than fabulous.”
It doesn’t succeed at this task, unless reading the full text (with a hyperlink helpfully provided) of an anti-war, anti-Semitic speech that Lindbergh delivered in 1941 makes you more likely to believe that Lindbergh would have delivered the same speech while campaigning successfully for the presidency in 1940. Even so, the appendix is useful, as it makes it plain that Roth really believes in the plausibility of a Lindberghian America — and what’s more, that he means to make his “historical unreality” appear deeply embedded in our own history, by sheer force of unnecessary detail if nothing else.
Indeed, Roth is so intent on rooting his “what-if” in the actual American past that he carefully avoids changing anything in his “alternate” timeline that takes place after the Lindbergh interregnum. Once the titular plot is foiled (and it does no injustice to the book to reveal that it is foiled), the Japanese still bomb Pearl Harbor (albeit a year later), the U.S. still wins World War ii — and 20 years later, we learn in an aside midway through the book, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York is still assassinated while running for President. The great irruption of fascism into American life seems to leave no mark on Roth’s history — or, more aptly, he seems to be suggesting that the America of today is, in its essential being if not its actual past, a country that briefly flirted with the iron heel . . . and perhaps could flirt with it again.

Which brings us at last to the great literary debate of 2004: Does Roth intend to draw parallels between his novel’s era and our own — between the creeping fascism of Lindbergh and the Bush administration? The answer is almost certainly yes, for all that Roth himself has called it a “mistake” to read The Plot Against America “as a roman a clef to the present moment in America.” The fact that in the same essay he referred to George W. Bush as “a man unfit to run a hardware store” is not the only reason to suspect him of a certain disingenuousness. There is also Roth’s own keen political intelligence, which must have made him aware, as he was writing, of how his book would be received by the American intelligentsia, particularly in the electric climate of autumn 2004.

Of course The Plot Against America is not a roman a clef, exactly: There is no key that would enable the reader to recognize Lindy as Dubya, or the American Jews of the 1940s as the American Muslims of the early twenty-first century, or any similar absurdity. But there are too many echoes and resonances for Roth to plead writerly innocence — too many easy parallels between Lindbergh in his airplane and Bush in his flight suit; between the fiction of an evil, manipulative vice president from a western state (in Roth’s novel, it is Burton K. Wheeler, an isolationist senator from Montana) and the liberal caricature of Dick Cheney; between the Office of American Absorption and the liberal caricature of John Ashcroft’s Justice Department; and, above all, between the “perpetual fear” evoked by the narrator and the perpetual fear in which so many of our writers claim to live, spooked by color-coded alerts, Osama bin Laden, and our supposedly vanishing civil liberties.
Such parallels are the stuff of high silliness, of course — but, then, so is The Plot Against America’s entire Lindbergh storyline, and it seems uncharitable to be too harsh on Roth’s literary anti-Bushism, especially in a year that has seen so many deliriously awful Bush-bashing efforts spilling off the bookstore shelves. If Roth intends his novel as a warning that “all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy” — as he claimed in his Times essay — then we can accept the wisdom of the admonition, surely, without agreeing that it applies particularly strongly to America in the early 1940s, let alone to America in the age of Bush.
Perhaps we should be grateful, in fact, that the hysteria of the last election season was transmuted, in some small way, into the veins of literary gold that run through Roth’s book. But veins, alas, are all they are. There have been a thousand anti-Bush books, and none so good as this one. But this is Philip Roth, and it is his business to be better.