Saturday, June 05, 2010

the plot on (or by) philip roth

I rarely read novels, so when I do, they have to be good. On someone or other's recommendation I decided to read "The Plot On America by Philip Roth," who I don't remember reading since Goodbye Columbus about a hundred years ago. I wasn't disappointed.

The basic idea of the book is simple enough. For whatever reason, Americans have gotten tired of Roosevelt and, in 1940, vote in Charles Lindbergh--yes, that Charles Lindbergh--as their new, Republican President. As in real life, Lindbergh is a well-meaning but somewhat vapid person, and also a pretty rabid antisemite, although his inclinations in this department are somewhat reined in by his wife (Anne Morrow Lindbergh) and by American political traditions, which aren't yet ready to extend to white minorities the kind of treatment historically meted out to others. What follows is unpleasant enough: an Office of American Absorption designed to transfers Jews "voluntarily" to southern and midwestern states, where many are later dismissed from their jobs; propaganda assaults against "Jewish warmongers" coupled with a shameless cozying up to Nazi Germany, which (together with its allies) is allowed to run rampant through the Old World; and increasingly open acts of private humiliation culminating in anti-Jewish riots in cities throughout the country which leave several hundred dead and many others packing for Canada. While there is an inevitable plot twist, in which things correct themselves and the world returns to some kind of order, one has the sense that the protagonists' psychological world, together with the physical lives of many of their loved ones, have been irrevocably shaken.

On a certain level, the book might be taken as simply another "what if the south had won the civil war?" piece of historical fiction. What makes it so striking is that Roth tells the story through the eyes of his own family: his seven-year old self in 1940, recounted years later, together with his real family and the actual Newark Jewish community much as it really existed in that period. (One of the biggest surprises to me was that Newark had 50,000 Jews in 1940, constituting the sixth largest community in the nation and probably one of couple of dozen biggest in the world.) By interspersing real and imaginary details, and by describing the descent into hell one step at a time--private insults, the first public measures, and finally actual physical fear--he makes the story compelling in a way that a wholly fictional account probably could not achieve. Nor does he idealize the Jewish community, with the possible exception of his own parents: several Jews, notably an opportunistic and unfortunately all-too-believable rabbi, cooperate in the antisemitic program, while a barely literate Italian and a Kentucky tobacco farmer render indispensable services.

Some readers of the book saw a roman-a-clef about the Bush Administration and its response to the 9-11 crisis. I think this is probably overstated: the story is heavily dependent on its early 1940s milieu, and some of the heroes (see above) are the kind of people who probably would have voted for Bush a couple of generations later. Others disliked the book for taking liberties with Lindbergh or for simply lacking credibility, which I think is arguable but beside the point.

I saw the book as less a political commentary than a story about ordinary people and how they respond to extraordinary events. The real protagonists are not Roosevelt and Lindbergh but the members of Roth's own family, who struggle to respond as their world collapses and as the people they would ordinarily look to as leaders either accommodate themselves to evil or actively promote it. If there is a message, it is that simple courage and honesty are frequently more important than education and culture: another arguable proposition, but probably true more often than not.

I found the book especially provocative as someone who has studied the response of foreign Jewish communities (especially Italy) to antisemitic persecutions. Americans, who never really had to face these challenges, are frequently quick to criticize these communities for being weak, opportunistic, or cowardly. By imagining the infinitely larger and more powerful American community in an equivalent situations, and assessing its decidedly mixed response, Roth has clarified just how facile these opinions are. In one memorable scene his family is at Mount Vernon, Virginia, when Lindbergh--who still enjoys flying--soars by in his personal aircraft. "Hooray for Lindy!" the onlookers shout while Roth's parents stand in stunned silence. Was this how German and Italian Jews felt when Hitler or Mussolini made public appearances? Roth's fictional but all too real account makes the question that much more vivid for us.


At 2:48 PM, Blogger aisforanxiety said...

Thanks. I have recently discovered Philip Roth and three novels in I have found his work to be really thoughtful. He deals with issues of individuals and communities in a way I find really compelling. His work also soars, there is a poetical quality in addition to the nitty gritty of what you seem to describe with this work.


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