Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
Firstly, this is Roth in political-novel mode, meaning there’s barely a whiff or issue of sex here; and meaning also that we miss one of Roth’s major field-talents (I’ve had to balance my reading of The Plot
with Millet’s Sexual Life of Catherine M
.). This is purely Roth the Literary Monk; one of the quietly active custodians of the novel form, working steadily away in his personal cell of the soul and his small but essential window on the world. Everyone’s been banging away in reviews about the Lindbergh scenario’s parallel with the current US administration, even though that is doing Lindy a slight disservice. Everyone wants this novel to represent our current politics (ou, the Politics
Against America) which of course skews the broad valence and weight of the novel unfairly; as though we need further cultural affirmation of what is already bleedingly apparent — the incompetent idiocy and smallness of the Bush junta — or indicative of some latent guilt and conscience-issues re: his reign. This book, although small in terms of rage and scope, is still larger than George W. will ever be.
One of the finest achievements of the novel is the blend of child’s POV with fully adult prose finesse. Roth never descends to childlike babble and prattle — the prose remains fully intelligent yet encased within a child’s world and concern. I didn’t realise how effective this was until many pages in. It’s the most sustained trope of the book — and a writer’s difficulty executed effortlessly. Sterling adult prose told honestly, personally.
The subject of much of American politics is "We the People" — and Roth aims in the same direction. He plays beautifully on the American faith in proffered beliefs and ideals, in the ability of Americans to believe their own propaganda and myths, and hence the US system of bamboozlement that feeds it — not so much through direct doublespeak but political sophistry and duplicity. Perfidy, false patriotic piety, dissembling cant and overt misrepresentation (all things in line with the Bush junta). To exploit traits or characteristics (in this case Jewish temperament, persecution complex, congregation etc) as the defining cause of violence against them; to inflame prejudice whilst actually serving an extremist agenda. That is, explicit self-propagandising — an American political specialty. Here, the asserted right or privilege to speak for We the People with finality and racial superiority — and hence Roth’s emphasis of US citizenship and pride over racial distinctions and the politics thereof. His family always considers itself American first, Jewish later. And hence the classical-novel mode of politics entering and poisoning the family as pseudo-symbolic of the country at large, poisoning itself.
The point of the novel methinks is not to willfully parallel the Bush junta and its own particular cult of fear and propaganda, but to show how easily and close the US of the early 40s came (by fictive extension) to fascism and institutional anti-Semitism. This is one of the disturbing by-products of the corrective notes at the end, especially regarding Wheeler, Ford etc. The seeds were all there but the mélange of events raised a different fruit. This narrative force of ‘what if’ is married to the growth of fear in a single Jewish family; and by the child’s entrance into maturity through confronting and absorbing the essential unpredictability of modern life. The valence and cohesive relevance of family (gained by increased awareness) in the face of growing chaos, violence, paranoia. Hence, it’s a cautionary tale. But as always with Roth, all is achieved by a rich panoply of characters — the focus of centrality shifts subtly from Sandy, Alvin, the father and then to the mother, with all the minor characters in between and the political players in the contextual-mingled background. The eager energy of the father all the while contrasted with the eager gullibility of Americans adopting fascist sympathy. The fall-ins and fallouts with the government; the eager betrayal of his people by Bengelsdorf; the power (and guilt) of political bling and nearness to myth (the white god descending from the skies in his plane/chariot is a pure Hitlerian fantasy (contrasted in turn with the deliberate veracity-ambiguity of the Nazi causality in the plot resolution)).
I like the idea of Philip Roth as a Literary Monk because it provides a gold-standard model for serious literati in these seriously warped times. A model of ageing defiantly, in truth to one’s cause (the novel) and with consistent grace (say over the last four novels). Roth doesn’t descend (if that’s the right phrase) into op-ed forays of political reactionism or Jeremiads, yet neither is he aloof enough to completely lose relevance or cease engaging artistically with the times at hand. As far as longevity goes, Roth is quietly assuring his own greatness over flies like Bush by presenting the human, personal and above all the particular view of innocence matured (another myth strongly interred in the US mind) as a frame for political and social awareness. Roth the Writer should be the one who comes to mind when we think of Representative Americans. And also, on the level of the writing (and in addition to his supreme ease with the novel medium), I particularly like Roth because you can feel how the mechanics of literature connect and mesh with the broader society that spawns it, even down to its conscience. He’s becoming more and more a Newark man as he’s becoming a greater American.
A new life began for me. I’d watched my father fall apart, and I would never return to the same childhood… the father… [was] crying like both a baby abandoned and a man being tortured — because he was powerless to stop the unforeseen. And as Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything… The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic (p113-114)
I remained in bed with a high fever for six days, so weak and lifeless that the family doctor stopped by every evening to check on the progress of my disease, that not uncommon childhood ailment called why-can’t-it-be-the-way-it-was. (p172)
…every day I ask myself the same question: how can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination. (p196)
What it came down to for the child who was watching her [his mother] being battered about by the most anguishing confusion (and who was himself quaking with fear) was the discovery that one could do nothing right without also doing something wrong, so wrong, in fact, that especially where chaos reigned and everything was at stake, one might be better off to wait and do nothing — except that to do nothing was also to do something… in such circumstances to do nothing was to do quite a lot — and that even for the mother who preformed each day in methodical opposition to life’s unruly flux, there was no system for managing so sinister a mess. (p340-341)