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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America (2004), by Philip Roth was part of my fiction reading last week. Anyone else read it? This is an "alternate reality" (I hate that expression) science fiction novel by a major mainstream author - I always associate him with the notorious Portnoy's Complaint, especially the unforgettable liver scene.

Roth imagines an alternative reality in which the great aviator and notorious anti-Semite, Charles Lindbergh, stood successfully for the US Presidency in 1940. The Lindbergh administration immediately seeks peace and cooperation with the Axis powers, stands aloof from the warfare raging in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, and plots the gradual destruction of Jewish culture in America.

While there is some ambiguity as to how far Lindbergh is committed to a homegrown program of racial extermination, similar to the Nazis' horrific Final Solution, it becomes obvious that he intends to break up the East Coast centers of Jewish community and to destroy all vestiges of Jewish identity through the activities of the ominously-titled Office of American Absorption (or OAA). Dissenters are monitored and harassed by FBI agents, while the administration allows the Ku Klux Klan, local Nazi bodies, and other anti-Semitic organizations to prosper. Out of opportunism or a foolish belief in their ability to soften the administration's excesses, some socially-prominent Jews collaborate with Lindbergh. One senior rabbi is even appointed head of the OAA.

WARNING: SPOILERS ON THE WAY

The story is narrated by a version of Roth himself: the "Philip Roth" of the narrative recounts his Jewish family's struggle for survival and dignity during the terrible months from June 1940 to October 1942, as the Lindbergh administration drags the country into deeper friendship with Nazi Germany and increasingly blatant persecution of the Jews. Looking back on this time of tribulation, "Roth" describes all the micro-level agonies within his own small family, while also telling the grand political narrative of resistance to the quasi-Nazi regime (a resistance with its own towering figures morphed from history: deposed president Franklin D. Roosevelt; New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia; and flamboyant columnist and newscaster Walter Winchell).

Unlike Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, The Plot Against America does not present us with the ongoing aftermath of a changed historical event (such as victory for the Axis powers in World War Two).

Instead, its author focuses on a set of events that deviates from actual history over a relatively short period, with suggestions that American history subsequently returned to something like its actual course. The effect is not so much to speculate about what would have happened if, say, Charles Lindbergh had been elected president, but more to remind us just how close to the surface the darkest political stirrings were, even in a country like America, even in recent history ... and to suggest the perpetual vulnerability of decency, civility, and tolerance, even in seemingly urbane and enlightened societies.

4 comments:

Blake Stacey said...

I'm gonna be doing some air travel in the next couple months, so I figure I should pick up a few novels to read; I'll put this one on my list. I vaguely recall hearing about it in some random place before, perhaps while I was cleaning up lists of X, Y and Z in the byways of Wikipedia.

One thing which bothered me about the show Sliders was how the "point of divergence" for the alternate history of the week was always revealed before the first commercial break. This seems to be a common symptom of "alternate reality" fiction: the divergence points don't have to be puzzled out. Not being familiar with the length and breadth of science fiction, I'm sure there are important exceptions to this — I'm just reporting my casual observation.

This might be why I enjoyed Borges's "Death and the Compass" so much: rather than setting the story in a Buenos Aires of some alternate timeline (Rosas never became dictator, BolĂ­var unified South America, or whatever), he built a dream city out of fractured pieces of culture.

Russell Blackford said...

I had slightly mixed feelings about it, which I may find difficult to articulate. There was something a bit clumsy about the way the ending was handled - perhaps because the really crucial events took place in the narrator's absence, and he was only able to tell us about them, rather than really conveying the experience of them.

MORE SPOILERS

For a science fiction reader, there was also something odd about the whole set-up. There was little of what might happen after the events of the novel, though they would surely produce enormous deviations from our reality (people would be altered psychologically in all sorts of ways by living through the Lindbergh years, institutions could never be put back in quite the same way, different people would marry, different people would be born, etc.), but Roth didn't seem to want to go there. The novel seemed designed to make a very limited point, and though it was an enjoyable (if grim read), the logic of its own realism seemed to demand more of it.

Things seem to spring back to the reality we know - FDR dies in similar circumstances; we are told at one point that RFK was shot in what appear to be identical circumstances to his assassination in our world; etc.

All this feels wrong to me. I guess I'd have expected it to end on a note of mixed hope and foreboding after the bad guys' plot is defeated. What will now happen in this world that has experienced such events? I don't think you can write such a realistic novel while suspending realism about such things - but someone not immersed in science fiction might not feel this at all.

Alejandro said...

I enjoyed the novel well enough, but the ending was a huge deus ex machina that almost spoiled it for me. I think that's the main problem with the novel. I was willing to suspend disbelief on the point that reality returns eventually to normal, but not on the sudden and unbelievable way it does.

Blake Stacey said...

Just finished! Spoilers follow.

I found a grim irony in Roth's statement that Bobby Kennedy died in the same circumstances in the fictional world as in our own history. This statement enters the narrative on October 5, 1942 (p. 272 in my copy), when the Roth character is setting up the scene for Walter Winchell's assassination.

Though Presidents Lincoln and Garfield had been shot and killed in the second half of the nineteenth century and McKinley at the start of the twentieth, and though in 1933 FDR had survived an assassination attempt that had instead taken the life of his Democratic supporter Chicago's Mayor Cermak, it wasn't until twenty-six years after Winchell's assassination that a second presidential candidate would be gunned down — that was New York's Democratic senator Robert Kennedy, fatally shot in the head after winning his party's California primary on Tuesday, June 4, 1968.

This is, as far as I can recall, the first moment when Roth indicates that the course of his history is going to rejoin with ours — that "it's all going to be OK". Rather a bleak way to do so, I should think.