Telling It Like It Is By Telling It Like It Ain’t

May 25, 2004 |

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 400 pages.

Philip Roth can write anything. And he can write it very well. He’s an unparalleled humorist in Portnoy’s Complaint, The Great American Novel and My Life as a Man, displaying comic exuberance that is the literary equivalent of Woody Allen channelling the Marx Brothers. He’s also a moral historian. His finest portraits of American life — Goodbye, Columbus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral and The Human Stain — capture the sounds, stories and ideologies of the 1950s, ’70s and ’90s with striking precision.

And in yet another set of novels, Roth is a master fabulist who delights in telling tales that are deliberately and disturbingly unreal. The Ghostwriter contains a haunting fantasy about Anne Frank riding out the Second World War in her cramped bunker and appearing, years later, in rural Massachusetts. What if, Roth asks, Anne hadn’t perished? Who would she have become? The Counterlife presents five mutually exclusive iterations of the lives of its characters, and Operation Shylock introduces a doppelganger Roth who advocates the transfer of Israeli Jews back to Eastern Europe. Spinning out these unbelievable stories, Roth exhibits fiction’s power to reveal truth without being true. He tells it like it is by telling it like it ain’t.

In his latest novel, The Plot Against America, Roth extends this technique even further, limning two years in the history of an America that elects celebrity aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh to the presidency in 1940 instead of FDR.

The book opens in May, 1940, with Roosevelt in the White House. Philip Roth, a 7-year-old philatelist, is such a comfortable middle-class suburban kid that he can’t understand why a bearded old man knocks on the door and asks “for a contribution toward the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.” Philip wonders: Who needs Palestine? “Our homeland was America.”

All this changes when, after a dramatic appearance at the deadlocked Republican National Convention in June, Lindbergh sweeps through a presidential campaign and wins on the wings of one simple promise. He will “preserve American democracy,” he says, “by preventing America from taking part in another world war.” Within weeks of the inauguration, Lindbergh flies to Reykjavik and Honolulu to ink non-aggression pacts with the Germans and Japanese.

It doesn’t take long for these political events to hit home. Philip’s cousin Alvin joins the Canadian commandos and ships off to Europe. A family trip to Washington, D.C., brings the Roths within earshot of a new brand of anti-Semitic American patriot. Then the government establishes the Office of American Absorption (OAA), to help “religious and national minorities” adapt to life in the U.S.A.

The OAA, directed by an odious collaborationist rabbi, is the frighteningly plausible first step an American government might take to address its “Jewish problem.” Philip’s older brother Sandy is chosen to participate in Just Folks, a “volunteer work program for city youth in the traditional ways of heartland life,” on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. He returns saying “‘cain’t’ for ‘can’t’ and ‘rimember’ for ‘remember’,” having learned to enjoy bacon and to apply phrases like “persecution complex” and “ghetto Jews” to his parents. Philip experiments with more personal forms of disobedience and attempts, unsuccessfully, to reinvent himself as a Christian orphan.

Events soon careen out of control: America’s most influential journalist, Walter Winchell, is fired for his vociferous opposition to President Lindbergh (and, it goes without saying, because he happens to be Jewish). Winchell embarks on his own presidential campaign, though there’s no election in sight, and the tension builds until it explodes in anti-Semitic riots — pogroms — in a handful of cities. To anyone who believes otherwise, Roth’s methodical and convincingly researched narrative proclaims: It absolutely could happen here.

Despite growing dangers, the family patriarch keeps the Roths in their home in New Jersey, arguing, “Don’t you understand that these anti-Semitic bastards want us to run away?” Still, as America descends further into fascism, Canada begins to seem an attractive alternative for families like the Tirschwells, who migrate to Winnipeg. Roth’s mother opens a savings account in Montreal. Meanwhile, with the American withdrawal of aid to the Allies, the Great White North becomes Britain’s “only source of arms, food, medicine and machinery.”

Reading The Plot Against America as a Canadian, in light of Canada’s appalling Second World War-era immigration record, and only months after the fire-bombing of a Montreal Jewish school, one can only hope that Roth is right when he imagines our country wouldn’t have fallen in line with a pro-Nazi America. A less flattering role for Canada is hardly unimaginable. With Lindbergh in the White House, might self-proclaimed Canadian fuhrer Adrien Arcand have risen to prime minister as leader of the National Unity Party?

Such questions, like the ones posed by Roth’s book, cannot be answered: History happens only once, and only one way. The Plot Against America is false and unrealistic — and true in the most fundamental and relevant sense. It’s true to the contingent nature of history, to the terrifying possibilities of the modern world. Though it does not offer his most elaborate or beautiful prose, and will disappoint readers seeking frivolous escape from the headlines, Roth’s American dystopia demands to be read and reckoned with. It reminds us that recent history, awful as it was, could have been much worse — and, in an age of war and terrorism, that democracy does not offer us much protection from insanity.

[Originally published in The National Post.]