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Friday, September 14, 2012

=Heil Lindbergh? Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America"=

By their very nature, alternate histories can be great entertainment and a lot of fun. When they are penned by a great writer like Philip Roth, they can be a lot more than a deliciously chilling "what-if."

Such is the case with "The Plot Against America." Roth doesn't merely posit a world in which the Nazi's win World War II. Instead, he does something far more subtle, more terrifying, and more realistic. He imagines an American that never goes to war at all. This is an alternate America in which the pro-fascist elements that actually existed in the country at the time win popular support through the legal electoral process. As a result, no less an eminent personage as Charles Lindbergh becomes president. Yes, though it may be little known or forgotten, men like Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and other prominent, otherwise eminent and respected Americans were fascist sympathizers back then. Either they didn't see clearly what Hitler and his gang were about, and/or they considered him less a threat to democracy than an inundation by the red tide of world-wide communism.

In any event, the historical plausibility of a Nazi-sympathizing United States amps up the reality of Roth's alternate history. As does his method of telling his story: through the experience of a Jewish family in Newark as reported by its youngest member, a boy named Philip Roth.

By taking a microcosmic, personal view, Roth is able to replicate the realistic feeling of powerlessness that the individual feels in the face of historical events that come to us through news reports and official government proclamations of dubious veracity. Much of the power and plausibility of "The Plot Against America" comes from how very little of what happens is verifiable, the uncertainty in determining how much is propaganda, how much is paranoia. Is Lindbergh really a Nazi? Is the U.S. Government truly on a path to a pact with Hitler that will lead to concentration camps and crematoriums in the American heartland? The parallel to our own times is sharp and unmistakable. How much of what we're told about the dubiously ubiquitous "War on Terror" is really true...and how much of it a ploy to drum up "patriotism" and at the same time squelch dissent and marginalize those who oppose the government as crackpot conspiracy theorists and traitors?

These are among the issues that Roth tackles in "The Plot Against America" at the same time that he tells what would otherwise be a typically untypical Rothian coming-of-age story. Here the usual dark humor of a boy approaching sexual awakening in a riotously imperfect, well-meaningly dysfunctional, but ultimately loving Jewish-American family is made all the darker by the specter of genocidal pogroms. Think, perhaps, Anne Frank, except she's a boy growing up in a blue-collar family living in Newark, NJ.

Powerful, intelligent, and thought-provoking, "The Plot Against America" could hardly be more timely--or timeless. Roth has made the alternate history novel his own, elevating it, as he elevates everything he does, to literary art.

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