The Plot Against America

by Philip Roth
ISBN: 0618509283

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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 family's breakdown. 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.

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