Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Plot Against America - Philip Roth

The Plot against America is a chilling work because it is so undemonstrative. It never goes over-the-top, never chases drama, never descends into didacticism. Instead, it posits a chillingly simple thesis – what if America had turned towards fascism in the 1940s? – and examines, coldly, soberly, what might have been the result. The answer is frightening, all the more so because – until a less than satisfactory ending – nowhere does Roth lose control of his narrative. It all feels real. It could have happened.

By extension, it could happen.

The alternative history that Roth creates builds around the election of Charles A. Lindbergh to American President in 1940, following a tubthumping and virulently anti-Jewish speech in which he called for American neutrality in the European war. This speech was genuine, but for Roth’s narrative the date shifts from 1941 to 1940. Lindbergh beats Roosevelt in a landslide and so begins a train of events which threatens to turn America towards fascism. Non-aggression pacts are signed with Germany and Japan. Von Ribbentrop is invited to a special dinner at the White House. The Orwellian-sounding Office of American Absorption (OAA) is established. A ‘Just Folks’ programme sends young Jewish children to live with gentile families. A malevolent government uses parochialism and homeland security fears to quash civil liberties (and how resonant does that sound today?) And so the descent begins.

What is most disturbing about the novel is the blandness of it all, the ease with which a civilisation can slip into barbarism. The depiction of America’s Kristallnacht is terrifying precisely because of the lack of over-dramatic build-up. What we see are ordinary people whose views are changed subtly because of the polished, persuasive oratory of Lindbergh, and from that there are further gradual shifts rightwards. Comments about ‘loud-mouthed Jews’ become more strident. Divisions are created. The slide into violence is slow but even so, when it comes, it feels like a natural conclusion. And yet think about it, and think how unnatural and repulsive it actually is: this dichotomy between the nature of the act and the way in which the act is reached is what is truly disturbing. We saw it in Nazi Germany in the thirties, a slow decline into monstrousness, and Roth shows us clearly how it could happen again, almost without our realising it. Because when the shops are attacked and the people are relocated and the riots begin it is already far, far too late.

The heroes of this novel are, I suppose, Joe and Josephine America, those ordinary men and women who are quietly seeking the American dream and who see in America a way of life that is important and worth cherishing. The main family in the narrative are the Roths, a Jewish family who live in a Jewish neighbourhood which, nonetheless, is not that different from any other neighbourhood in Newark. Those bearded Jews who visit door-to-door seeking donations for the ‘homeland’ are a mystery to young Philip Roth: ‘We'd already had a homeland for three generations,’ he tells us. ‘Our homeland was America.’

But their homeland is soon to be riven. Under the auspices of the OAA, the Homestead 42 scheme seeks to disperse Jewish communities and Jewish families are ‘selected’ for relocation into rural areas like Kentucky where there are few Jewish traditions. This is absorption as means of elimination: Jews are accepted, even welcomed, as long as they conform to ‘American’ – ie WASPish – ways. Its mirror is the Good Neighbor Project, in which the homes vacated by Jews are filled by non-Jewish families, further diluting their separateness. Jewishness is under attack. The certainties that Herman Roth holds dear, and tries to instil in his family, are washed away. His world suddenly becomes hostile. Drama ensues.

The genius of this book is the way that Roth invests meaning in the wider, political and social drama by examining it through the prism of the private dramas of his young character, the youthful ‘Philip Roth’. Philip is seven years old and understands the world in the way that seven year olds do – focused on himself and his own immediate concerns. And so we have his obsession with his stamp collection – a symbol of all that America stands for – and his wide range of childish fears and his irrational responses to crises, such as running away from home to a Catholic orphanage with only his beloved stamp collection for company. The young Philip has no understanding of what is happening in America, and yet he sees the destructive impact it has on his family, the way their close-knit unit comes close to unravelling under the pressure, the tragic, painful consequences, the danger. And, above all, the fear.

It is not a faultless book. In particular, the last quarter feels rushed and incomplete. Lindbergh disappears in his aircraft somewhere over the ocean and, from that moment, the grip that the narrative has had over the reader begins to loosen. Instead of being driven by each horribly plausible narrative turn, one starts to question the plausibility of what one is reading and, from then, the strength of the book weakens. The ending, in particular, a typically American everything-is-resolved, everyone-is-happy sort of ending, feels flat.

But for all that, this remains an important and fascinating book. It casts a mirror on our society – then and now – and the reflection we see is not one with which we might be entirely comfortable. In rewriting history, Roth confronts us with today. Writing of this novel, he said:

And now Aristophanes, who surely must be God, has given us George W. Bush, a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one, and who has merely reaffirmed for me the maxim that informed the writing of all these books and that makes our lives as Americans as precarious as anyone else's: all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history.

Precarious indeed but, in exactly one week’s time, the world may begin again. Unpredictable though it is, history has now, suddenly, lurched towards truth and honour. There is to be a new President and the hope of a new future. Let us hope that nothing derails it.

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