The Plot Against America

It Has Happened Here
All about fiction.
Oct. 12 2004 12:28 PM

The Plot Against America

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Dear Nick,

What a complicating condition marriage is! If I weren't married to you I might be tempted to take your closing question seriously. ("But my people weren't wrong about that, were we? When has this wonderful country ever, outside the pages of a novel, let us down?") But since I am married to you I sense your sarcasm; I know that you're just gallantly giving your wife an opening big enough to drive her SUV though. As you know perfectly well, having written the definitive history of American meritocracy, this country has not let us down. Our people—German and Russian Jews alike—have flourished here as they have never flourished anywhere else. But as you know equally well, having written one book about race (and more than half of another), this country has let down another minority group. Everything that happens to American Jews inside the pages of Roth's novel had already happened to American blacks outside them.

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After all, by the 1930s, America had had its share of pogroms. Sometimes they were called lynchings; sometimes they were called race riots; sometimes they were called Negro uprisings. And they weren't that far in the past, either. Brent Staples has written a great deal in the New York Times about the pogrom (aka "race riot") in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921 in which a mob of as many as 10,000 white people, including policemen and members of the National Guard, rampaged through the black section of town, shooting, looting, burning, tying blacks to cars, and dragging them through the streets, and ultimately killing some 300 people.

So, sure, Bess and Herman Roth were acting on the Russian Jewish fear of pogroms when they began planning their move to Canada. I was giving in to it when I allowed myself to sense, if not exactly a parallel, then a sort of sympathetic vibration that their situation arouses in ours. But if one were permitted to summarize the political lesson of a particular novel (and one isn't, not really, though we can perhaps bend the rules for a political novel like this one), then The Plot Against America's would be that the Jewish fear of pogroms shouldn't be dismissed as an old-world relic—merely the paranoia of ghetto Jews. In the years since the turn you identified as occurring with Patrimony, Roth has come around, I think, to seeing the Jewish fear of pogroms not as delusional but as a highly sensitive detection mechanism kept in good working condition by people with direct experience of mob violence and the uses to which it can be put. And even if Herman Roth doesn't know enough about race relations to make this point, any good student of American history reading the book ought to know not only that it could happen here but that it has.

Roth is brilliant, though, at showing us how hard it is to see clearly into the immediate future, even when one's life depends on it—and that, too, seems to me to be part of the nowness of the novel. He has taken the counterfactual form and turned it into an ode to the terrors of the provisional and the unforeseen at a moment when fear of what might be about to happen is at an all-time high. (Roth wrote in his Times essay, "We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history.") A second stroke of genius is the Office of American Assimilation, which obscures its anti-Semitic agenda with an Orwellian turn of phrase very much of its day. When Nazis were boxing Europe's Jews into ever smaller spaces, who could object to a program that promoted assimilation and Americanization, that spread Jewish boys, then Jewish families, across the continent? For sheer nerve of the up-is-down variety, the OAA is reminiscent of (though even better than) the Clear Skies proposal and the Patriot Act and the Bush administration's definition of a small-business owner.

One question we haven't asked each other yet is whether this one of Roth's better novels. There are, as you say, some supremely good bits of Rothian discomfort. I too loved the grotesque Alvin and the pathetic Sheldon, as well as many individual scenes, such as the tense, tragicomic scene in which the Roth family travels to Washington. They get thrown of out a hotel when it becomes clear that they're Jews, then nearly incite an anti-Semitic incident in a restaurant—all of which is tragicomic because Roth filters it through a 7-year-old's horror of embarrassment. Even the noble characters, Bess and Herman and the idealistic young Philip, leap off the page.

But there is also something flat about the book, something that has to do with its somberness of tone. In the best Roth novels, every sentence works its way up to a little shock and every scene works its way up to an electrification. In this novel, he cultivates an incantatory style that's meant, I think, to honor and celebrate the people he's writing about but winds up being ever so slightly soporific. Roth seems to be restraining himself, perhaps because the topic of fascism is violent enough and writing with ferocity might result in hysteria. But I wonder whether, when we are no longer able to read the book with the sense of urgency inspired by the present moment, it will still feel as necessary as it did when I read it this summer.

Love,
Judith

Nicholas Lemann is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Judith Shulevitz, former culture editor ofSlateand former columnist for the New York Times Book Review, is working on a book about the Sabbath.

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