The Plot Against America
Once again we've conned Slate into paying us to do what we do anyway—in this case, argue about the latest Philip Roth novel. (For readers who don't know, Nick and I are married.) The Plot Against America is a novel of counterfactual history. It imagines an America in which an isolationist anti-Semite—the celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh—is elected president in 1940 and leads the country into a Nazi alliance and fascism, rather than FDR being elected for a third term. Unfamiliar premise notwithstanding, the book starts out in a familiar place: the parkless streets of the lower-middle-class Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, N.J., where Philip grew up, and where many of his novels have been set or at least began. But for the first time we are allowed to see this world, the bounded universe of young Roth and his parents and their neighbors, not through the funhouse distortions of satire, not through the manic rhythms of a Jew who loves Jews, knows Jews, writes about nothing but Jews yet bathes them all in the brilliant comic light of claustrophobic self-disgust. No, in The Plot Against America we have the spectacle of Newark's Jews being given the ennobling proportions of figures most likely to be seen on postage stamps.
Now, Roth has invented Jewish paragons before—think of American Pastoral's golden boy Swede Levov. But the heroes in this novel are Roth's parents. Nearly 40 years after Portnoy's Complaint, that seems hard to believe, no matter how many times Roth assails critics who reduce art to biography. Bess Roth is the anti-Sophie Portnoy, a brave and meticulous mother, rescuing neighbor children as well as her own. Herman Roth is a brave and honest father, not consumed by neurotic anxieties like previous Roth fathers, but pouring himself selflessly into the lousy insurance job that is the best available to him as a Jewish high-school dropout. "We were a happy family in 1940," writes Roth. "My parents were outgoing, hospitable people." Their neighbors were "lighthearted kibitzers or silent, dutiful breadwinners who all day long unclogged drainpipes or serviced furnaces or sold apples by the pound ... plain people." Their wives "worked all the time, with little assistance from labor-saving devices, washing laundry, ironing shorts"—the list of their tasks continues for a page—while "attending to their children's health, clothing, cleanliness, schooling, nutrition, conduct, birthdays, discipline, and morale."
Was Roth getting sentimental on us? But we couldn't stay focused on that question, because we had to debate the more pressing one: What, if anything, was Roth trying to say about the present? The urge to read this novel as an allegory of the current situation—as a comment on our president and what at least half our friends are calling the slide into fascism, or, alternately, as an indictment of antiwar isolationism, with its faint odor of anti-Semitism—is irresistible, especially during a presidential election campaign. So strong is the temptation that nearly every reviewer has had to warn readers against it. You, too, kept telling me not to rush to judgment about Roth's politics; what makes him such a great novelist, you said, is that he complicates and undermines everything. Even Roth published an essay advising us not to do it.
I found Roth's essay unpersuasive, though, since he concludes with a fulmination against Bush, "a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one." And I can't help feeling that even the critics who in public refused to read the book as a fable in private did exactly that, or at least tried to figure out why this novel feels so urgent, like it's telling us something we need to know right now. Of all the critics, I thought Paul Berman best described the relationship between real present and imagined past: "[I]n composing his novel Roth has simply run his eye across the modern horizon, and gathered in the sights, and rearranged them in a 1940s kaleidoscope."
In other words, though The Plot Against America obeys the laws of its own historical logic, though it forbids us to read it like a map or travel guide to the present, it still has much of our contemporary reality in it. But that reality is not found in plot points or even in images; it is felt in echoes and moods. So, the relevant data point is not the much-cited figure of Lindbergh striding into the Republican Convention to accept the nomination clad in his flying attire, so evocative (and so damning, really, when you compare the real hero to the fake one) of Bush in his flight gear on the aircraft carrier under the "Mission Accomplished" sign. It is the agonized incomprehension that torments the Roths, their panicked incredulity as they read the headlines and see their core principles violated and wonder if events have gone beyond their ability to deal with them. There is also their deep alienation, their fear that fellow Americans are more foreign than they ever imagined, especially in how easily they accommodate themselves to situations that ought to terrify them.
I was struck by Roth saying in his essay that he came up with the idea for the book while reading Arthur Schlesinger's memoirs in December 2000. Do you remember what you were feeling then, the month that five Supreme Court justices picked George Bush to be president? I remember what I was feeling: incredulous at the chain of events that had led to this outcome, furious at the Republicans for fighting so hard and dirty during the recount, afraid of what these people would do now that they were in power. I had a sense that everything the Supreme Court stood for, and by extension the very idea of America as a nation of laws, had just been dragged into partisan muck. And I remember feeling completely baffled that so many fellow Americans failed to feel the same way as me.
Now, though The Plot Against America generates these same emotions, Roth has of course found a story in which the stakes are much higher—real fascism, not just a political agenda that liberals like me don't like—and maybe that vitiates my analogy. And yet, one of the more interesting features of counterfactual history is that it frees history from its anchors, thereby reproducing the uncertainty of the present. We may think we know where it's all going when the pompous Southern rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf plays the toady to the Lindbergh administration and becomes the head of the Office of American Assimilation, a program that moves Jews out of the cities and into the heartland—but the Jews around him do not. We can't be sure we know either, and as almost every American in the novel (with the exception of Philip's parents) lulls him or herself into accepting the first step toward probable but not guaranteed catastrophe, we're forced to ask ourselves whether we aren't, in our own lives, doing the same thing, whatever "the same thing" means: giving in to paranoia or blinding ourselves to disaster or—as is true often in life but rarely in art—a little bit of both.
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.