four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
By: 
Philip Roth
user_rating: 
0

When aviation icon Charles A. Lindbergh, running on a "Peace with Hitler" and "America First" platform in the 1940 presidential election, defeats incumbent FDR, he embraces isolationism, Aryan supremacy, and anti-Semitism. He then signs non-aggression treaties with Germany and Japan and befriends Nazi luminaries. Lindbergh also institutes the "Just Folks" initiative, which encourages "American religious and national minorities"—Jews, that is—"to become further incorporated into the larger society" by relocating Jewish children to the Christian heartland of America.

Lindbergh’s presidency alarms the nation while simultaneously co-opting its citizens, including an ordinary working-class Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey. As many readers know, Roth often includes himself as a fictional character in his work. Here, an older and wiser Philip Roth recounts the events that shook his fictional family’s foundations between 1940 and 1942. "Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear," he says. As history slips from their control, internal warfare rends the family fabric. When pogroms rock the nation, Roth (the author) asks if it’s possible to safeguard morality and humanity in an age where, we’re certain, "it can’t happen here."
Houghton Mifflin. 391 pages. $26. ISBN: 0618509283

Critical Themes

Another stolen identity. Roth is famous for creating strong, often disagreeable characters, only to have history steal them away. Remember the terrorist daughter in the all-American family in American Pastoral, who succumbs to ‘60s radicalism? Or Operation Shylock’s writer who implicates himself in Middle East politics when a mad clone pilfers his identity? Plot Against America touches on similar themes as Roth family members undergo a "malignant transformation." So, too, is "America" stolen as Roth concocts "a disturbingly dark double for the nation itself, a shadow-U.S.A." (St. Petersburg Times).

History close to home. Once again, Roth uses a semi-fictional namesake family to explore the personal ramifications of global geopolitics. Critics generally agree that the novel’s autobiographical elements don’t produce the narcissistic feel of Roth’s other fiction. For once, notes the Washington Post, "the self is less important than the world outside." Yet, the author still turns a microscopic eye on his protagonist’s dramatic encounter with history, which critics agree forms the novel’s core. The young Roth’s father sums it up: "History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue."

"What if" history. "The ‘what if’ in America was somebody else’s reality. All I do is defatalize the past," Roth said (New York Times Book Review, 9/19/04). Some reviewers see Roth’s alternate history, now a commercial genre, as "terrifyingly believable" (San Francisco Chronicle). In part, their suspension of disbelief stems from possible parallels with the Bush administration—Lindbergh’s "unshakable" conviction and "plain-talking" ways do sound awfully familiar. Roth cautions against reading the novel as a modern-day parable. Instead, he wishes to challenge our assumptions about our nation and illustrate people’s powerlessness "to stop the unforeseen." Let’s take solace in the fact that the fictional Roth lives to tell the tale.

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"His latest novel… couldn’t be more amazing. … But as we get to see in a number of wonderful chapters and set pieces about life in this cockeyed universe in which Nazis dine at the White House hosted by Anne Morrow Lindbergh … things aren’t that simple, not for Lindbergh, not for the Roth family, not for America." Alan Cheuse

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Written in pitch-perfect prose, The Plot Against America is an opportune study of the fragile nature of minority rights and the destiny-shaping power wielded by the occupant of the White House. … While the climax is cluttered and rushed, The Plot is a thoughtful thriller with poignant underpinnings, the latest in a string of deluxe novels by one of America’s greatest living writers." Ariel Gonzalez

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Philip Roth has written a terrific political novel, though in a style his readers might never have predicted." Paul Berman

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"The Plot Against America is a brilliant meditation on the way a country can wander off the democratic path when led by a charismatic figure who encourages the baser impulses of the populace, and of the way democratic freedoms and habits of mind can disappear so subtly that it’s difficult to register their passing until after they’re gone." Brian Morton

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Although much of this novel is really an affectionate picture of urban Jewish society on the eve of World War II, its ability to capture uneasiness and creeping paranoia is brilliant and disturbing." Bob Hoover

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"[B]ecause that [historical] setting, however fancied, is rendered so carefully, the imaginings hitched to the facts, it makes for the most intense book Roth has written to date." John Dicker

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he moral center of this story, and its indisputable hero, is the author’s resurrected father—the proud, obstinate, garrulous, mostly unschooled insurance agent Roth has celebrated in previous work." Christopher Goffard

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It may well be his best, and it may well arouse more controversy than all the rest [of his books] combined. … That Roth has written The Plot Against America in some respects as a parable for our times seems to me inescapably and rather regrettably true." Jonathan Yardley

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The trouble is [Roth] is a near-great, almost but not quite in the company of such Jewish masters as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Henry Roth and Isaac Bashevis Singer. … Rich as it is, [the novel] has one important flaw: As we read along, Roth cannot quite make us forget that this book is a fantasy, that the things related in it never happened." Henry Kisor

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What readers will discover, however, is Roth’s most powerful work to date. Confounding and illuminating, enraging and discomfiting, imaginative and utterly—terrifyingly—believable, The Plot Against America is an exercise in speculative history that becomes speculation itself." Daniel Handler

Providence Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"So it’s not a shock when things begin to right themselves, but a disappointment that Roth the author chooses a flimsy deus-ex-machina plot device to make it happen. … His depiction of his family brings fine moments of real emotion." Alan Rosenberg

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"But as meticulously and credibly as he renders the personal—his parents here are surely as real, as complex, as warm as any he has ever created—Roth loses control, utterly, of large-scale events." Arthur Salm

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"This failure [of persuasion] stems, in large measure, from the fact that the novel is based not on a war going one way instead of another, but on a nation’s social machinery producing a very different result than it actually did, and Mr. Roth’s reluctance to spend a lot of energy on imagining exactly how and why that might have happened. … Yet it is also a novel that can be read as a not-altogether-successful attempt to mesh two incompatible genres: the political-historical thriller and the coming-of-age tale." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

In 26 books, Roth has painted panoramic views of America’s social landscape, from neurotic Jewish-American families to 60s-era cult figures. (See our Book by Book profile on Philip Roth, July/Aug 2003.) Plot Against America casts a politico-historical lens on the fear and uncertainty experienced by a young Philip Roth, the semi-fictional narrator. The novel, at once a suspenseful thriller, family drama, and coming-of-age story, speaks to the devastating forces that entangle the individual with history. Paranoia? Check. Endangered freedoms? Check. Mob violence? Check. Denial? Check.

In this risky genre, Roth took chances that paid off. A few reviewers even call Plot Against America his most powerful novel to date. The best parts revolve around family emotion as Roth—older, sadder, and wiser—recounts how he, as a child, lost faith in his father’s power to right observed wrongs. The author is an impressive historian; fact and fiction merge as pogroms threaten Jews, conspiracies run amuck, a Walter-Winchell-for-President campaign launches, and the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. At times, this wealth of historical detail overwhelms the family’s dramas. Leaving the fabricated premise behind for just a moment, some events—including Lindbergh’s baby kidnapping—seem plain implausible. The author’s own politics, although less self-consciously present than in previous novels, can also interrupt the fictional Roth family’s challenges and contemplations. Others criticized a clever but abrupt finale, despite a bibliography, historical chronology, and short biographies of real-life figures. And, a few critics never quite bought into the "what if?" premise. Yet, as Roth suggests, history repeats itself, moving on without our permission and co-opting us in the process. In the end, Plot Against America is an "epic, unforeseen and unexpected" (San Francisco Chronicle)—just like history.