The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

What if Kristallnacht happened in Detroit?
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The Independent Culture

Philip Roth is at his coronary-inducing, adrenaline-triggering best when he writes about being an American Jew. His under-rated 1993 novel Operation Shylock scythes its way into the relationship between Judaism and Zionism better than any other novel I know. So when I found out that his new novel was a dissection of American anti-Semitism - a "what if" novel where the notorious Judaeophobe Charles Lindbergh becomes US President in 1940 and keeps America out of the Second World War - I was almost rendered incontinent with excitement.

Philip Roth is at his coronary-inducing, adrenaline-triggering best when he writes about being an American Jew. His under-rated 1993 novel Operation Shylock scythes its way into the relationship between Judaism and Zionism better than any other novel I know. So when I found out that his new novel was a dissection of American anti-Semitism - a "what if" novel where the notorious Judaeophobe Charles Lindbergh becomes US President in 1940 and keeps America out of the Second World War - I was almost rendered incontinent with excitement.

The novel is written as a memoir of this America that never was, and Roth uses his own family and his much-described childhood in Newark, as his skewed canvas. Roth is seven years old when Lindbergh becomes President. His father is a decent working-class Jewish immigrant who idealises America. This man resolutely refuses to see that he - and the Jews - are slowly being degraded into second-class citizens. At every stage, he insists: "This is our country, dammit," even when Von Ribbentrop is dined extravagantly at the White House, and every "little fascist" in America feels emboldened to express his anti-Semitism. When this "insane stoicism" does fracture, the narrator explains: "It was the first time I saw my father cry. A childhood milestone, when another's tears are more unbearable than your own."

Roth's mother - one of the few female characters in Roth's canon not tainted by his misogyny - panics sooner and harder. She can see that America's Jews are being "abruptly thrust back into the miserable struggle from which they had believed their families extricated by the providential migration of the generation before". Roth's older brother Sandy is gradually turned against his family. After a government-sponsored summer on a Kansas farm - designed to "connect the next generation of Jews to the American soil" - he returns cursing his family as "ghetto Jews" and "you people". Fascism politicises even the most intimate relationships.

In this climate, America soon becomes drunk on "the intoxicant of anti-Semitism". A Kristallnacht ravages Detroit. Tyrannies reduce everybody to the status of children; everyone is infantilised by the Great Leader. Because Roth has cleverly chosen to narrate his story from the perspective of a child, we as readers are reduced to this state too.

And we are drawn into complicity with it; victimhood is, Roth knows, rarely a passive condition. Each member of the Roth family - with the solitary exception of Philip's father - is shown to internalise the anti-Semitism slowly suffocating them. Philip begins to break the law, noting, "I must already have begun to think of myself as a little criminal because I was a Jew." His mother begins to cede her American identity, saying, "Like it or not, Lindbergh is teaching us what it is to be Jews. We only think we're Americans."

It is here that the novel is strongest. It is weakest when the bigger national narrative - the story of the Lindbergh administration - and the smaller family narrative fail to mesh. Towards the end - which feels rushed - Roth almost gives up trying to integrate the two. He gives us a whole chapter of exposition about the Lindbergh developments without any reference to the Roth family at all.

The Washington narrative does, however, have its thrills. Nobody rants like Roth, and when he allows one of his characters to let rip - whether it's Franklin Roosevelt or Lindbergh himself - his writing ignites. Few authors but Roth would dare to put imagined words in the mouth of a wartime Winston Churchill; nobody but Roth could pull it off.

The decision to publish this book a month before the US Presidential elections may make good financial sense, but it ultimately does a disservice to the novel. Much of the advance buzz made it sound as though Roth was taking on the Bush administration and the "War on Terror" - so inevitably readers will squint to see the politics hiding behind this story. But who is the Bush proxy here - Lindbergh, a President preaching near-pacifism? Franklin Roosevelt, agitating to take on fascism? No; this is not a commentary on the 2004 election. (Could somebody tell Roth's publicists?)

Like all Roth's fiction, this novel is dazzling but flawed. Roth has made the strange decision to undercut the dramatic tension inherent within his own story. For example, early on in the novel he reveals that, 16 years after Lindbergh's inauguration, Albert Einstein still becomes the first Jew to appear on a postage stamp. We therefore know that Lindbergh is ultimately defeated, and that no dystopia is looming. Even when Roth's father and brother set out on a dangerous journey, we are told immediately that they return safely - and then subjected to 20 pages of non-suspense. It's as though Roth thinks it would be somehow vulgar to write a thriller. This is unfortunate, since he has usually been immune to such literary affectations.

But it would be ridiculous to grumble. Philip Roth with flaws is still the most exciting novelist writing today. Read this book, but please - leave it until after the Presidential election.

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