Book Group: Mary Dejevsky reviews 'The Plot Against America' by Philip Roth

Dark line between truth and fiction
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The Independent Culture

The plot of the novel is, of course, fiction. And Roth leaves the reader with no excuse for believing anything else. He supplies a postscript underlining that The Plot against America is "a work of fiction" and clarifying precisely where his fictitious account diverges from real life. This is a wise precaution, perhaps, given the state and selectivity of historical knowledge on his side of the Atlantic and on ours.

The aviator Charles Lindbergh was sympathetic to Nazi Germany, but he never did become president of the United States. There was a strong strain of isolationism in pre-war America, but the US was never allied overtly or covertly with Nazi Germany. There was anti-Semitism in certain circles, but there were no laws that compelled the cultural assimilation of American Jews.

The bigger questions this novel poses, though, relate less to whether it did happen than to whether something like it could happen. Is US society tolerant enough of difference, is its Constitution sufficiently robust to protect all Americans and US democracy? For while this is a novel about one minority, it could easily be about others: black Americans over the past century and a half, or Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 11 September.

The most troubling aspect of Roth's novel is that the dark side corresponds so closely to so much in the mood of today's America - the isolationism, the simplistic zeal of the Christian politicians, and the elevation of white American "wholesomeness" into a universal cultural command. The saving graces, meanwhile - the twists that Roth introduces to produce an almost-happy ending - are among the least plausible components of the story.

So, could it happen? No. Could something like this happen, in the long run, after more 9/11s? I could not rule it out altogether. Or perhaps, as in The Plot against America, common human decency would just about prevail.

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