Philip Roth's novel takes place from June 1940 to October 1942: covering Lindbergh’s nomination and victory and the beginning of the Final Solution for the American Jews, as seen by a boy, named Philip (the demand of immediate credibility is too pressing to change names) in Roth's hometown, Newark, NJ. It is the substance of your worst fears, described in crisp detail, without exaggeration or even the patina of fictionalization. The precise description of everyday life in the plain light of day (going to work or school, collecting stamps, playing with friends, buying and preparing food) intensifies the horror. For it all happens as the Jews endure and protest small humiliations and difficulties that lead to deportations and pogroms they are powerless to oppose. Roth perfected the description of adolescence in prewar suburbia in Portnoy's Complaint. (That was the book Gershom Scholem declared would unleash a wave of anti-Semitism. In fact, the Levi's-rye-Lolita of a book made Roth famous.) The Counterlife and I Married a Communist rehearse the ideological passions of the Jewish leftists and Zionists of the postwar era; and The Human Stain chronicles the gradual destruction of a man's life through a sexual harrassment charge in the late 1990's.
The Plot Against America is the culminating mytho-poetic vision that caps the arguments of earlier Roth novels, much as Plato invokes the dreamlike vision of the dying and rising Er, son of Armenios, rather than yet another debate, to seal his philosophical system in the tenth and final book of the Republic. What has been argued and adumbrated needs to be experienced by feeling, though the phantasmagoria of fable, in order fully to be perceived. And the shocking contrast of mythmaking to reasoning is itself useful to impress a message, as an image, upon the mind. To put a sardonic construction on John Lennon: Imagine. There is perhaps a teleological fallacy here, somewhat on the order of post hoc, ergo propter hoc: one is in effect suggesting that Philip Roth's huge oeuvre has led to this terrifying book, that the stories of Portnoy and Zuckerman and Silk all imply, and build up to, the great If.
In 2002, while suicide bombers were killing Israelis in buses and cafes and schools and even at Passover Seders, the great and good of the earth, artists like José Saramago and Mikis Theodorakis, lined up to declare the Jews the cause of all evil on earth. Leon Wieseltier pleaded then in The New Republic for American Jews not to wallow in panic: America isn't Germany; and Israel is strong. Had Roth set his fable around now, following the chronology of his previous meditations on Jewish belonging and powerlessness, the fiction just might have failed to bear the weight of suspended disbelief. That depends on how optimistic one is: as I read the novel I tried to recall Leon's reasonable article the way one fingers a talisman, and reason still deserted me. We aren't out of the woods. The setting in 1940, though, leaves no room for doubt at all. It accomplishes the effective nightmare.
Roth's vision of fascism in America unfolds on two planes. The first is the wider world, Christian America, heard about by radio at home and through neighbors’ open windows, or read about in the papers. During the Great Depression, my parents and grandparents listened to FDR’s fireside chats on the radio and gained hope and courage. That is reversed now: new pronouncement on the air by the Lindbergh Administration increases unease. The protective institutions of democracy are compromised or neutralized: the conscience of Congress; the authority of the Supreme Court where Brandeis and Frankfurter sit; the editorial independence of the Sulzbergers’ New York Times; and on down to FBI getting you fired from your job, noise outside your front door, your window breaking... The second plane is the microcosm, a Jewish neighborhood of Newark. Roth's narrator, Phil, recalling in later life his childhood years, chronicles the progressive destruction of his family. At the start of a long-planned family trip to the Nation's Capital, a hotel evicts the Roths because they are Jews. The Government harasses a relative because he has served as a Canadian Army volunteer in Europe: the eight-year-old Phil sees his young cousin, crippled by the loss of a leg, peering in longing and despair at girls from the basement window. Later on Phil, who does not know yet what semen is, sees a sticky white stain on the wall and thinks it is a residue of the boy’s terrible bodily and spiritual pain. How dark the refraction of Portnoy's priapic, polymorphous adventures in masturbation!
Adults whisper of emigration and frightened children dream of running away. Phil's strong, confident Dad loses his job, then much of his dignity, as he realizes he cannot protect his family. Phil’s Mom, a pillar of strength, sometimes breaks down. The Nazi's co-opt Phil's brother, for a time, as the poster boy for a scheme to resettle Jews in rural areas. He spends a summer with the family of a Kentucky tobacco farmer and falls in love with country life, thereafter dismissing with contempt his family’s fears as the paranoia of “ghetto Jews.” Friends and neighbors are coerced into relocation to a remote area without a Jewish community. Pogroms start in the Midwest. Then there’s rioting closer to New Jersey. Shots ring out at the end of the street. You end up hiding under the bed. The two planes of the narrative meet. In the dark final chapter, “Perpetual Fear,” a timid kid’s mother is burnt alive: the boy left behind is one enormous wound, a stump of a person “shattered by the malicious indignities of Lindbergh's America.”
Roth's alternative history has Lindbergh perish in a plane crash, after which there is a coup d'état, Roosevelt's re-election, the restoration of democratic society, and a belated entry into World War II. Britain and her Commonwealth, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, have held out all this time without American help, but our entry into the war hastens Allied victory. The fictional present time of the narrator, Roth’s alter ego, in which he recalls his terrifying childhood, includes the State of Israel. But all of that hopeful future is narrated quickly and not very convincingly, and is buried in the middle of the final chapter. It has to be somewhere to render plausible the narrator's continued existence into a future from the vantage point of which he tells his tale. But the book is so constructed as to close leaving no hope for the future, at least for an untainted future. There is lingering unease, ‘perpetual fear,’ and, with it, the feeling that America is not really our country at all. We Jews cannot and should not feel safe here.
This Land was Your Land:
A Review of Philip Roth
Am I Religious?
Down and Out in the Slipper Room
Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography
Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma Dies
Our 580 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Fall/Winter 2004 issue now on sale
From previous issues:
T Cooper: No Fences
Keep Your Eyes Peeled
The Warm, Impossible, Wall-less Summer World