what i'm reading: the plot against america by philip roth

I didn't expect to write another "what i'm reading" post so soon, but I'm so absorbed in this book that I had to post: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.

I'm not sure how familiar Canadians are with Philip Roth. He's an important American writer, very prolific, often confounding. His first novel was Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Plot Against America came out in 2004, and there's a long, long list in between.

Roth is both profound and playful, and his writing is hugely varied - he's not a writer for whom you can read one or two books and declare you know him. Some of his novels are among my favourite books; others I found unreadable. But without a doubt he is a great American voice. I'm hoping he wins the Nobel Prize in his lifetime.

Roth has also been very influential in bringing other voices to US audiences, most notably Milan Kundera and Primo Levi. One can imagine a direct line following the Eastern European experience, beginning with Kafka, then Roth, then Kundera. Roth is the branch of the family that came to America.

When The Plot Against America begins, it is 1939, in a working-class Jewish neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey. Everything is historically accurate: it is exactly 1939.

Then something different happens: the Republicans do not nominate Wendell Willkie to challenge Franklin Delano Roosevelt's bid for an unprecedented third term. They nominate Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh: hero, celebrity, friend of the Nazis, virulent anti-Semite. (This is true, too, except he wasn't nominated.) During the campaign, Lindbergh keeps his most objectionable sentiments under his hat, and the media - then known as "the press" - goes along for the ride. Lindy seduces the public with his plain-spoken charm, and runs on one simple promise: I will keep the US out of another war.

He wins. FDR goes home to Hyde Park. A Nazi-sympathizer sits in the White House. It begins.

I am finding this book so gripping, so terrifying, and so completely believable, that I have to keep reminding myself that it didn't happen this way. I keep thinking, thank god I'm in Canada already, before this happens. Obviously, that's part of Roth's point.

The Plot Against America is not told as history. The narrator is a nine-year-old boy, who experiences these world events as personal, family history. So the book is also a coming-of-age story, and Roth is brilliant at this. The narrator's milieu is very familiar to me: it's the culture in which my parents grew up. My parents grew up in Brooklyn, but for these purposes, it's the same thing.

I don't know if the impact of this book would be as great for a reader who wasn't from the US, or who wasn't Jewish. I'm finding it sometimes almost too scary to read.

Have you seen the movie The Garden of the Finzi-Continis? (I've mentioned it repeatedly in this blog, it's one of my minor obsessions, like George Orwell.) Finzi-Continis is about Italian Jews on the eve of their destruction, and it's the best movie I've ever seen about the Holocaust. There is no violence; you never see a concentration camp or a murder. The comfortable Italian Jews are slowly stripped of their lives. They adapt to one indignation, and then another, rationalizing and adjusting, as people do, as they gradually become second-class citizens. And then, it happens. I don't know if I've ever been so affected by a movie - so completely chilled, so frightened - as I was at the end of that one.

I am about halfway through The Plot Against America, and I purposely haven't read anything that might reveal plot. So I don't know if the American Jews, and their country, make it out alive.

Late addition: In this alternate universe, where the US does not enter the war against Germany or Japan, leaving the British and Canada to struggle virtually alone against the Nazis, Canada emerges as a safe haven for American Jews. Canadian readers will be justly proud of their country's role in this imagined nightmare.


allan said...

I know when the book first came out, Roth went out of his way to say that he wasn't making any comment on the Cheney administration, but I imagine it's hard to avoid some type of comparision.

... especially when shit like this is going down.

James Redekop said...

Of course, Canada's treatment of Jews in the 30s and early 40s wasn't ideal either. The Christie Pits (which we drove past on that tour we took) were the site of the worst race riots in Canadian history, the 1933 Christie Pits Riot, in which Nazi sympathisers crashed a baseball game in which a Jewish team was playing.

Check out the eye Weekly article as well.

laura k said...

Thanks for those links. I do remember it from our driving tour.

The US's treatment of Jews - in real history, not Roth's alternate history - wasn't perfect in the 30s and 40s either. But the US was a haven for European Jews just because they could have any nationality at all. Jews in Russia and Poland weren't Russian or Polish - they were Jewish, only. So to be American meant everything to them.

My parents' generation, who were kids during WWII, were hugely patriotic, and dead-set on assimilating as much as possible, while still being Jewish.

I don't know much about the Canadian Jewish experience, so I don't know how it compares. People have suggested that Mordechai Richler is a good place to learn about that.

Trevor said...

Richler is a great place to start!

More than that, the prime minister at the time, William Lyon MacKenzie King, had anti-semite tendencies himself (which, as Abe Simpson once said about tying onions on his belt, was "the style of the time"). I can't remember the name of the ship of Jewish refugees we turned away in the early days of the war (perhaps someone else can help), but we do have our own black marks.

Maybe as a reminder to other governing officials whose policies are less than stellar, it should be noted that MacKenzie King, while going on to be the longest-serving prime minister ever in the country's history (not an unbroken reign though), had a notoriously hard time ever winning his own seat in the Commons. And unlike other Allied leader at the time, his armed forces didn't care for him that much either.