Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)

Argh… we are officially in February and I still didn’t find time to write about books that I gave back to the library mid-January. Alright, you don’t care: a good book is a good book. Even after 2 weeks. Especially when you remember it so vividly 2 weeks afterwards. 

The Plot against America is the second novel by Roth I read. I had raved about The American Pastoral last year, expect me to do the same about this one, even though the tone and subject are widely different. After avoiding Roth for years because of his high-brow reputation (I somehow thought you had to be a 60-year-old male New Yorker to understand his prose), I read it with excitement, although “with pleasure” doesn’t exactly suit the subject. 

Roth’s ambition in this novel is to imagine his own life as a child in the 1940s if anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh had won the US elections over Roosevelt, stopping the US from entering the war but effectively siding with Nazi Germany. I haven’t read much of alternate history novels, although this idea always fascinate me (what if…?), but what I appreciate in this novel is that Roth doesn’t take it too far. He doesn’t turn the US into a Nazi country overnight, he merely describes little facts that lead to others, all remaining within a realistic probability. It’s an historical fact that a lot of Americans didn’t want to enter the (then mostly) European war, it’s also a fact that racism and anti-Semitism existed in the country, that Lindbergh and its pro-Nazi movement was popular (the massive post-face sets the records straight). Yet luckily Roth’s novel remains essentially a fiction. 

From the outside, things don’t start too bad after Lindbergh’s elections, but Jewish families in Newark, NJ, as elsewhere in the country, feel a sense of impending doom awaiting them. Lindbergh introduces governmental programs that seem harmless, like sending young Jewish children during summer holidays to work in farms in the (Christian) Middle West. Much to Roth parents’ horror, Philip’s elder brother gets easily indoctrinated during these holidays and comes back a Lindbergh’s fan. The president then launches a relocation program to move Jewish families away from their communities, effectively dislocating the communities and leaving isolated families at the mercy of anti-Semitic riots. 

It’s very scary in its day-to-day approach. Conditions degenerate in a slow way. History is not a big bang. The reader gets to see events unfold from a wide perspective, like from the radio news (and from the standpoint of older Roth looking back at his childhood) and also from a microscopic perspective, that of a family, who doesn’t know how events will turn out and yet has to take life-changing decisions: will they flee to Canada, and if so, when and how? Will they allow their kid to participate to this “Just Folks” program? Will they trust their Christian neighbors when the riots start? The pages where Roth discovers the courage and the weakness of his own parents are really memorable. 

Of course, this book deals with the question of identity: how to reconcile being Jewish and being American? Are these identities compatible or is one excluding the other? How far are we expected to relinquish some tiny parts of our community / faith identity to be part of a nation? Americans and Europeans traditionally have different takes on the question. The novel resonates a lot to me as a European, because we (as countries and communities) still struggle to understand what it is to be European on top of being French or German etc., and we face the challenge to integrate Muslim communities in European countries while their traditions and faith and world views may widely diverge from the traditional European approach. (Don’t take this sentence as a polemic, I know each of the words I use are politically charged and highly sensitive, but I really don’t know how to express myself better on this without taking side).

Roth’s novel is very time and space specific, but it is also universal and timeless in the questions it asks. So much for the 60-year-old male New Yorker… Is there any other Roth I should read next?

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3 thoughts on “Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)

  1. I am glad you liked The Plot against America. I absolutely loved it! Try The Human Stain, which I liked as well, though not nearly as much as The Plot. I have vastly different opinions on each of the Roth books I have read, ranging from ‘a total waste of time’ (Portnoy’s Complaint) to counting it among my favorite books (The Plot). The Human Stain falls somewhere in between, though definitely closer to my opinion of The Plot. It did take me some time to start to appreciate The Human Stain, though. At first it felt like an obligation to read on, but some way in I got hooked.

  2. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation | Smithereens

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