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.