Philip Roth,
The Plot Against America
(Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

In this novel The Plot Against America mainstream author Philip Roth employs a mode usually preferred by writers of science fiction, that of alternative history. Professional historians generate "counterfactuals" when they speculate about changes to historical narrative derived from an imagined alteration, either subtle or gross, to the known historical record. For example, Harvard University professor Niall Ferguson edited a collection of essays by professional historians (Alternative History: Alternatives & Counterfactuals) that speculated on such topics as: "What if there had been no American Revolution?" and "What if John F. Kennedy had lived?" Counterfactual narratives such as these are generally written in the manner of a professional historian, except that the whole edifice rests on a fictitious premise.

Novelists on the other hand write alternative histories, which differ from the counterfactual in that fictional characters are followed through historical landscapes that have been imaginatively altered either politically, socially or physically (often all three) from what is known to have existed at that period. The writers perhaps best known as practitioners of the alternative history trope in science fiction are Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint and Robert Silverberg.

Philip Roth is not a science fiction writer. In 1997 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House, and in 2002 received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in fiction. He has twice won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2005, the Library of America published an eight-volume collection of his novels and stories; this nonprofit organization seeks to preserve what it considers the most distinguished of American writing, and in the past has published the works of such greats as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Thus the publishing of the collected works confirms Roth as one of America's leading writers -- he joins Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty as the only American writers to have their complete works preserved by the Library of America during their lifetimes.

This review of The Plot Against America is from the perspective of the alternative history trope in science fiction. In this context it is perhaps worth mentioning the November 2006 announcement in the New York Times that "one of the world's favorite cult writers, Philip K. Dick, is being canonized" -- the report told of the Library of America's decision to published four of Dick's science fiction novels including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was the basis for the classic film, Blade Runner. Among the definitive examples of an alternative history novel is Dick's The Man in the High Castle wherein characters, and readers, have such disconcerting experiences as the transition between different timelines. While no such narrative pyrotechnics are on display in Roth's novel, there is nevertheless much that a reader of science fiction would find compelling.

The point-of-view fictional character in The Plot Against America is a 9-year-old boy, Philip, who, now adult, relates events of his childhood. What is remarkable in these events is encapsulated in the novel's opening paragraph:

"Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of Jews."

The "Lindbergh" in question is Charles A. Lindbergh, the man who in 1927 completed the first non-stop transatlantic solo flight. The subject matter of the novel, the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in an alternative 1940s America, is approached from two perspectives that differ enormously in scale. Through Philip we learn how the same malign circumstances conspire against both his family and America itself. Revealed to us in poignant episodes is the slow poisoning of the imagined American society that surrounds a young boy and his family. The particular poison is prejudice and anti-Semitism. This duel perspective of the novel is exampled by the episode early on when Philip's family -- father, mother and older brother Sandy -- go on a sightseeing visit to Washington that includes a visit to theLincoln Memorial and a reading of the inscribed Gettysburg address. It is to the sentiment of this document that Philip's father appeals when he confronts overt discrimination from a hotel manager in the city -- being forced to leave the hotel with his family for no other reason other than that they are Jewish. Thus, America itself, its history and traditions, takes center stage in the narrative.

Needless to say The Plot Against America is beautifully written. Particularly vividly captured is the character of 9-year-old Philip, experiencing as he does all the expected traumas and travails of growing up, but now overlaid by the menace of Lindbergh's presidency and its impact on those around him. Novels that imaginatively explore change (much of science fiction falls into this category) have often been written with a secondary motive, not alone to entertain but also to offer social criticism or warning. An example from as long ago as the 18th century is Irish author Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726); a more recent example is the explicit warning about nuclear annihilation in Nevil Shute's science fiction novel On the Beach (1957). Within The Plot Against America can be read a warning against the slow creeping rise of fascism in a democracy. At one point Philip's father declares:

"...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."

However, the novel offers few answers to that first question, or prescriptions for the disease that prompts it. Arrayed before us are "hysteria, ignorance, malice, stupidity, hatred and fear" as well as political corruption and opportunism, and the irrational, visceral hatred of one identified group of people by other "ordinary" people. But such things have always been present, and are always likely to be so, at least to some degree in any society. The author does not lapse into fuzzy Manichean concepts of life as a battle between good and evil, but illustrates what a complex totality human society is, and also how fragile. Towards the novel's end there is a long reportage section headed "Drawn from the Archives of Newark's Newsreel Theater." This is a history lesson where the alternative political events of 1942 are fully described; also reported is how it all turned out in the end, in the sense of how much the alternate world history managed in the long term to realign with the true, known historical record.

But the final chapter is headed "Perpetual Fear" and chronicles Philip's young life as he confronts the consequence of violence -- not all of it outside of his own family -- and also learns to live with the consequences of his actions. Thus The Plot Against America is both a brilliantly insightful description of growing up in adversity as well as a cautionary political tale.

The author employs many real-life historical characters in telling his story, principally of course Lindbergh and his political opponent Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A postscript to the novel contains four sections: "Note to the Reader," "A True Chronology of the Major Figures," "Other Historical Figures in the Work" and "Some Documentation." All are interesting and will doubtless bring many readers a deeper appreciation of this superb novel set in an alternative, but feasible, past. In reading The Plot Against America the reader will reap one of the rewards of imaginative literature: to see the reality about them, long dulled by familiarity, with a fresh vision. Anyone reading the book today cannot fail to see the lessons and warning for the contemporary world.

review by
Conor O'Connor

22 March 2008

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