||A Review of: The Plot Against America
by Michael Harris
The centre of the Earth, following World War Two, took up residence
in a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment and has not deigned to
budge since. Further, the American novel has become "the
elaborate conscience of the American race," touts English
critic Peter Ackroyd. So when Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth
feeds a terror-infested populace a book titled The Plot Against
America in the months leading up to a presidential election, more
than an eyebrow is raised.
The Plot is a dystopian fantasy. It's 1940 and America must decide
between re-electing Roosevelt for a third term or foisting the
upstart transatlantic flyer Charles Lindbergh on the world. The
American people (much to the reader's surprise) choose unwisely.
Anyone familiar with actual American history would know that Lindbergh
never ran for president. He did, however, champion American
Isolationism, arguing that special interest groups comprised of
"other peoples" (namely, four and a half million resident
Jews) were bullying America into a European war. The Plot is something
like an extrapolation, a what if', based on what is known of
Lindbergh's political beliefs.
The Plot opens as a sort of memoir, centering on the travails of
the Roth family-yes, this book is another experiment in what
uber-critic Michiko Kakutani disparagingly termed "Roth's old
mirror games." Seven-year-old Philip is the novel's cherubic
narrator. He starts off innocent enough, taking pride in folding
his cousin's underwear, but is quickly dragged into hellish depths
la The Handmaid's Tale.
The instigator for all that is evil? Lindbergh the President. The
heroic, voracious anti-Semite immediately sets about making life
for American Jews only marginally better than what they suffer in
Hitler's Germany. And the gravitas with which everything plays out
is freakishly sincere for a novel ("fear presides over these
memories," shudders Roth, "a perpetual fear"). His
sincerity is particularly alarming if we dare compare Roth's fantasy
election to current events.
And what a guy that new president is! In the same esteemed rank of
American Hero as Henry Ford and Joe McCarthy, Lindbergh is actually
awarded a Nazi medal-The Service Cross of the German Eagle-presented
by none other than Air Marshal Hermann Gring. Lindbergh's pacifist
speeches, suggests Roth, are received by Americans "weary of
confronting a new crisis every decade" who are "starving
for normalcy, and what Charles A. Lindbergh represented was normalcy
raised to heroic proportions."
But in his 1940s Newark duplex, little Philip struggles on with
more near-sighted paranoias. Will the annoying boy Seldon from
downstairs ever stop following him? And will one-legged Alvin (the
angry yet sexy war vet) really have to stay in Philip's room? As
The Plot chugs along, Philip's freedom is circumscribed initially
by his own family and later by his Homeland, America.
In Roth's murky novella The Dying Animal, he suggested that the
pain we experience in being "free", is most likely
self-generated. This is "the stupidity of being oneself."
But on the flip-side of his favourite themes-personal liberty,
emancipation-is the far less glamourous reality of an obscenely
aggressive environment, an overarching political agenda we are
powerless to challenge. In being not free, the pain we experience
cannot be self-generated.
Under Lindbergh's rule, every American boy goes off for two years
of military training. Lindbergh, unable to stop those who so famously
kidnapped his own baby, appears intent on kidnapping the rest of
America's children himself. But Philip, still too young for
conscription, focuses his dread on imaginary "bad guys"
in the basement. "I know you're down there-I've got a gun,"
he informs the phantasms. Then sheepishly adds, "I'm sorry for
whatever I did that was wrong.'"
Philip's ghosts are, of course, indexes for a wider horror that
plays in counterpoint with his private life. Elsewhere, Jews are
rounded up and gassed; in America, Philip invents a game of following
Christians home, to see where they live. "Will some Christian
take me in and adopt me? Or will I wind up being kidnapped like the
Lindbergh child? I pretended either that I was lost in some far-off
region unknown to me or that, with Lindbergh's connivance, Hitler
had invaded America and [I was] fleeing the Nazis."
The family-buffeted so by outside pressures-turns aggressively in
on itself. "What is the matter with you?" heckles Philip's
mother. "You're turning into-." But the trouble remains
unarticulated, as Mrs. Roth wrestles with the joint between global
politics and family life. "So are you!" returns her son.
Throughout the novel, there is a terror that grips, yet is ambiguous.
In the context of home and the family, this ambiguous, domestic,
terror looks an awful lot like kitchen-sink drama at times. In fact,
Roth writes more about the kitchen than any other room. It's in the
kitchen that a terrified Seldon (the annoying brat from downstairs)
telephones Philip's mother when his own mom goes "missing"-a
victim of anti-semitic insurgents.
"I want you to eat breakfast," counsels Mrs. Roth. "I
want you to use a spoon and a fork and a napkin and a knife. Eat
slowly. Use dishes." And so, the matriarch of the novel (one
of the more generous female portraits Roth has yet produced) demands
the saving grace of domesticity, of the home.
As luck would have it, that is the evildoers' plan too. A Lindbergh
initiative called Homestead 42 moves Jewish families to
"non-ghetto" areas of America where they might become
"more American", less Other. The educators of American
ways are, predictably, middle-state farmers. What's more, the Office
of American Absorption (what deliciously Orwellian names Roth
concocts!) does one better by transplanting isolated young Jewish
boys-in the Roths' case this means Sandy, Philip's elder brother-onto
tobacco farms in Kentucky. There, Sandy eats pig for the first time,
likes it quite a bit, and is thus damned for the novel's remainder.
Downstairs, in a rather heavy metaphor for the Jewish loss of voice,
Alvin's father succumbs incrementally to throat cancer. "His
father coughed so frequently and with so much force that there
seemed to be not one father but four, five, six fathers in there
coughing themselves to death."
Meanwhile, Lindbergh busies himself by constantly buzzing the
rooftops of America in his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, taking
on a surveillance position worthy of Foucault's "Panopticon".
As Big Brother watches from on high, the Roths alternately cower
and rage beneath.
Young Philip, for one, is haunted by mutations and corruptions at
every corner. He dreams of swastikas defacing his precious stamp
collection (Roosevelt, too, was a great philatelist); a legless
"stump of a man" begs his father for change; and then
there's cousin Alvin, minus one limb, home from Europe and shacking
up in Philip's room. "The amputation was still a limitless
loss," writes Roth. The notion of the "ghost limb"
is useful to the story: it resonates pain "though no limb is
left to cause it."
Like all dystopian novels, The Plot draws its thrust from a
complementary notion of a missed or lost Utopia. The funny thing
about Utopia is that, while we think of it as "best" or
"perfect place", it means something far less promising
for the haggard Roth family. Utopia is Greek for "no place".
And "no home" may be the real horror The Plot rages
against. Certainly, its pre-teen narrator is ruled by a fear of his
What the novel misses, in all that bouncing between macro and micro
world-views, is a complicated soul. Good guys and bad guys are far
too easy to pick out in all this. (The evil rabbi Bengelsdorf might
as well flicker the light switch and cackle when he enters the
room.) In a political novel that calls into question the nature of
history and autobiography, Roth's prose is comfortable, rather than
revelatory-and this stylistic complacency disappoints.