New York, Houghton Mifflin,$26, 400pp
reviewed in New York Review of Science Fiction 199, March 2005
Over the last 30 years or so, Philip Roth has blazed an inescapable trail across the American literary firmament. He was controversial when he started out, writing novels about sex, and Jewish sex at that; for a while controversy turned, as it so often does, into acclaim; the inevitable reaction set it and his critical reputation nosedived; finally, starting with American Pastoral in which he began to make a critical examination of American history the central force of his fiction, his reputation rose again. The Plot Against America, in many ways the climax of that engagement with history, comes when he is once more at the peak of literary respectability, and, true to form, it has been garlanded with praise from all the big critical guns. Whether or not Roth has dabbled with genre before is beside the point, this new book is an outright and unapologetic venture into alternate history, which is new territory for him, and which is one of the things that has got the critics so excited. Wow, who’d have thought of doing that?
The thing you realise the moment you start reading this book is that Roth knows nothing about how alternate history works — and presumably neither do any of the critics who have so lauded the book. It is, by turns, brilliant and dreadful. The penultimate chapter is probably the most amateurish thing I’ve come across in any work of alternate history; but the chapter which precedes that is probably one of the finest.
In the broadest terms, alternate histories tell two stories: the drama in the foreground, and the other history that provides the background to that drama. Except in a few rare (and generally unsuccessful) examples, the two stories cannot be separated: the story we are watching up close would not be happening if the historical background had not taken the particular shape it has. Structurally, this is a characteristic that the vast majority of science fictions share, even where the story is set in our familiar world the background cannot be assumed but must be told. The measure of the writer of alternate history is in the balance achieved between the two stories.
Roth’s background story starts with the premise that Charles Lindbergh, American hero and outspoken anti-Semite, wins the Republican nomination in the 1940 presidential race, then goes on to defeat Roosevelt for the White House. (He does this, noticeably, by appearing brave and resolute, and spouting simplistic nonsense. It is, I am sorry to say, one of the more believable aspects of this book: how easily the American public, any public, falls for this rubbish.) In power, Lindbergh keeps America out of the war, signs treaties with Japan and Germany, and slowly initiates a series of policies attacking the Jews. It is this last, clearly, which is the important message of the book, and though the specifics of the Lindbergh presidency are fresh it’s a familiar scenario. Up front we have the story of an average lower middle class Jewish family in New Jersey, and the story of the Lindbergh presidency could easily be integrated into the way their lives are affected. Such an approach requires the author to trust his readers to recognise the broad picture behind the narrow focus, but most literary works about the political, social or cultural state of the nation require just such an act of trust. Unfortunately Roth, tentatively presenting his different United States, is unwilling to ask his readers to make a leap that he himself is clearly nervous about. This background, therefore, is filled in by the most blatant, lumpen infodumps. The early chapters become almost unreadable in places, like a crass popular history written by someone with no affinity for the subject. Newspaper stories are read, and then explained; long passages describe in needless detail the minutiae of Lindbergh’s rise to power; newsreels are described, and then filleted so that they become more like an academic lesson than a snapshot of a moment in history.
It is only when he has Lindbergh comfortably ensconced in the White House that Roth turns his full attention upon the core story, which reveals the human consequences of these political transformations. We follow one Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, the Roths, the author plundering his own family, as he has done in other novels, to give the story its tremendous emotional impact. Nine-year-old Philip is the narrator, filtering great events through the normal incomprehensions and obsessions of childhood. Hearing his father rant about what a terrible thing the Lindbergh election is, for young Philip the first impact of the changing times is the divided loyalty he feels about his precious stamp collection commemorating Lindbergh’s flying feats. His father, meanwhile, is a secure, comfortably-off insurance salesman who has already turned down a promotion because it would involve moving to a non-Jewish neighbourhood. Though he might complain loudly to his cronies about the world situation, it seems it will not directly affect him and his family.
But events do come to affect them, at first through members of their extended family. Glamorous Aunt Evelyn becomes the mistress of the Quisling rabbi who becomes the Jew in charge of most of the anti-Jewish programmes (they are called, in the way of such things, ‘Americanisation’). Cousin Alvin, charming and dangerous, crosses into Canada so he can fight in the war against Germany; and almost immediately returns, minus a leg, to drift into crime. Then Philip’s older brother, Sandy, is sent to spend a month on a Kentucky farm as part of the Americanisation programme, and returns an enthusiast for the new way. More and more Philip’s split loyalties (by turns hero worshipping Alvin and Sandy, seduced by the glamour of Evelyn) and confusion that the language of Americanisation does not sound so threatening as his father makes it out to be, reflect the confusions and split loyalties of the Jewish community as a whole. Very slowly, things fall apart. Friends move to Canada, Philip’s father quits his job to avoid being forced to relocate to the mid-west, and the widow, Mrs Wishnow, and her son, Seldon, who live downstairs from the Roths are forcibly relocated to Kentucky. Riots start up, and Philip and his mother are sheltered by the Italian family who have moved into the apartment downstairs. Then, in a harrowing phone call from Seldon, we discover that his mother has been murdered in an anti-Semitic attack. A rescue mission is dispatched to bring Seldon back to Newark, while the Roth family starts to disintegrate as tensions are exacerbated, differences blown up and then reconciled, strengths and weaknesses tested. There is no melodrama, no big events, but the remorseless portrait of how ordinary lives are turned upside down by such political changes is absolutely masterful. I don’t know of any novel which has so brilliantly and touchingly captured the full human consequences of its alternate history as The Plot Against America does in the long chapter called ‘The Winchell Riots’ (in this universe the radio personality Walter Winchell becomes the voice of those protesting against Lindbergh’s government, until his murder sparks an anti-Jewish pogrom).
Then, in the very next chapter, Roth takes his eye off his family, and the whole thing falls apart. Instead of seeing the change and its repercussions from street level, as he has done in his focus on the minutiae of how the Roth family is affected, we suddenly draw back for a distanced, uninvolved, newsreel view of great events. Riots spread across the country, then, mysteriously, Lindbergh disappears; amid the rumour and counter-rumour it seems that his wife has been confined in a mental hospital. But she escapes dramatically and publicly decries the Nazi plot against America. Abruptly, in a cascade of events that go ludicrously against the political flow of the novel, the Lindbergh regime is overthrown, Franklin Roosevelt resumes his rightful place in the White House, and after two years of discontinuity everything fits back seamlessly into the pattern of history that we know. We have gone from the sublime of ‘The Winchell Riots’ to the ridiculous of a chapter which does not make sense in political or historic terms, and which demonstrates a palpable fear on Roth’s part to trust either his creation or his audience. In these two chapters Roth has separated out the emotional climax of his foreground story (which is stunningly good) and the intellectual climax of his background story (which is equally stunningly bad); yet there was absolutely no need to do this. If he had trusted his alternate history more, kept it all more tightly focussed on young Philip and his family, the impact and the message of this novel would have been inescapable. This is, without doubt, a very good novel, but it might have been great.