Did Roth loose the plot?
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, Vintage 2005, ISBN 0-099-47856-0
Philip Roth is one of modern America’s best-known novelists, famed for his comic Portnoy’s Complaint and his Pullitzer Prize trilogy beginning with American Pastoral. The Plot Against America was inspired by a remark in Arthur Schlesinger’s autobiography that in 1940 isolationist Republicans had considered inviting Charles Lindbergh to put himself forward as a presidential candidate. Roth asks ‘What if ?’ This novel is his answer.
After Lindberg arrived at Paris following the first solo flight across the Atlantic he became ‘the most famous man alive’. His achievement and his person became an icon which expressed the fantasies both of conservatives (he was a teetotal nonsmoker who did not dance, was a ‘real gent’) and of modernists (the Nietzschean hero incarnating his will in technology to perform an act whose meaning was itself) (1). This fusion of contraries renders it unsurprising that he became an admirer of that political movement, National Socialism, whose rhetoric and theatre fabricated that same fusion. Nothing is made of this cultural meaning of Lindbergh by Roth, who instead Roth does focusses on Lindbergh’s anti-semitism and admiration for Hitler.
The shock nomination of Lindbergh at the Republican Party convention is seen through the eyes of a young ‘Philip Roth’ in this imagined alternate world. Roth writes a fragment of his autobiography with a lovingly textured attention to the details of everyday life. The family of the fictional narrator ‘Philip Roth’ is the actual family of real author Philip Roth. This realism of the everyday seems to transmit a verisimilitude to the imagined history of his alternate world, where just one event appears to transform the political and cultural landscape. The narrator’s father is a staunch anti-fascist who refuses promotion because this would mean the family relocating to a neighbourhood which had a strong section of the German-American Bund – a pro Nazi group. His mother is a community activist; one of the powerful features of this novel is the picture it gives of the life of a mother in a time not far from ours.
Lindbergh wins the Presidential election by a landslide. He signs peace treaties with The Third Reich and with Japan. At home he institutes a policy aimed to erode Jewish identity be establishing the Office of American Absorption which encourages Jewish boys to spend time working on farms. This causes a major split in the Roth family as his elder brother, Sandy, enlists in this programme and comes home with a changed accent, having got used to eating bacon and insisting to his outraged father that nothing has really changed in America and that his father is a ‘ghetto Jew’. His aunt works for, and then marries, Rabbi Bengelsdorf. This is the only major figure in the narrative who does not have a counterpart in the real history. His role is critical both in the world which is constructed by the narrative of The Plot and in the … plotting, in the articulation, of the novel itself.
Bengelsdorf is a conservative who wishes to curry favour with the American elite and does so by endorsing the candidature of Lindbergh. This not only neutralises Jewish hostility to him, but ensures the support of liberal Americans, in the words of Philip’s cousin, Alvin, he succeeded in ‘Koshering Lindberg for the goyim’.
There is little opposition to the rule of Lindberg, what there is centres on the unlikely figure of Walter Winchel, a muck-raking journalist and anti-fascist. Winchel promotes himself as a stalking-horse presidential candidate, and then stands for congress. His denunciation of the President as a fascist leads to antisemitic riots. Finally, he is assassinated. Shortly after this point in the novel the first-person narrative is broken by another narrative – no longer in the first person, but in the form of summaries ‘Drawn from the Archives of Newark’s Newsreel Theatre’. This change in viewpoint accompanies a change in the mode of verisimilitude. From the seeming authenticity of Roth’s alternative autobiography we shift to a story which reads like the synopsis of a Tom Clancy novel: Lindberg embarks on a national flying tour to counter the sympathy for Winchel; he disappears; the vice-president mounts a coup backed by the military; liberals and labour leaders are arrested; Lindberg’s wife escapes from custody and broadcasts a denunciation of the coup. Congress calls a new election which Roosevelt wins by a landslide. The Japanese military strike Pearl Harbour in late 1942 and history is back on course.
The narrative then shifts back to the first-person and Roth relates a story told to his mother by her sister, who learnt it from Rabbi Bengelsdorf who was a confidant of Lindberg’s wife. This is a story which Tom Clancy would have rejected as wildly implausible; that the kidnapping of Lindberg’s child in 1932 was actually carried out by agents of the Third Reich who took the baby to Germany and blackmailed Lindberg into accepting the presidential candidacy. However, Lindberg turns out be be insufficiently antisemitic, merely – in Himmler’s words - ‘a dinner-party antisemite’, so his ‘disappearance’ is arranged.
The Plot Against America is actually two narratives. Shifting from one to the other is like putting down one book and opening another. The ‘Clancy’ narrative is ridiculously implausible in many ways. Its function can only be to fictively get history back onto course (what is know in the jargon of alternate-history buffs as a ‘second-order counterfactual’). However this narrative destablises itself by containing the story that the political career of Lindberg was choreographed by the Third Reich. Yet this revelation is itself sourced only from the Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who later wrote it up in My Life Under Lindberg. It is significant that Roth mentions that his mother heard it from her sister ‘her source none other than Anne Morrow Lindberg’ – yet a few lines later it is made clear that the aunt heard it from her husband Rabbi Bengelsdorf. Confused by this …. ? Well, the more I re-read and re-think on The Plot Against America the more confused I became.
It would be charitable to think that all of this was an artful strategy to promote a postmodernist scepticism toward historical narratives - in reality the only reasonable construction of it is that Roth has dug his narrative into a hole and needs a Heath-Robinson device to extract it.
Here we have a fine writer who publishes a novel which is clearly on issues close to his heart which yet uses the clumsiest of plot devices to alter what seems to be an inexorable movement. It is significant that the ‘Philip Roth’ who narrates the story announces the shift with the remark that: ‘then it was over. The nightmare was over. Lindberg was gone and we were safe’. On participant at the Book Club commented that: ‘The first thing you learn at school about writing a story is to avoid the ending that declares the whole story was a dream ... but that is what Roth does in this book’. So what is going on here? Is this just a clumsy device ? Do we accept that a fine writer can sometimes be a bad writer ? Or perhaps it was deliberately clumsy - pardon the oxymoron. What do we make of the bizarre conspiracy story that Lindberg had all along been a puppet, and yet the status of this is undermined as soon as it is uttered ?
It is often remarked that there is a sense in which all historiography is about its contemporary world, as well as about the past which is its ostensibly subject. This is even more so of alternate history – this is inherently ‘presentist’ (2). So what is The Plot Against America saying about the America of the early and mid noughties ? It is noteworthy that conservatives have tended to excoriate the novel and for liberals and leftists to praise it (3). One reviewer points out that there are a number of ‘easy parallels between Lindbergh in his airplane and Bush in his flight suit’ (4). However, this parallel actually shows just the opposite of what the reviewer intended: No-one can take seriously George W Bush as an aviation hero and no-one can seriously see a real parallel between Moslems in present-day America and Jews in that of the novel, or indeed under the Third Reich. Anyway, the central political appeal of the novel’s Lindberg was his campaign against overseas involvement of the American military ... so where is the parallel with Bush?
Indeed the implausibility of the ‘Clancy’ part of the novel is actually echoed by the central political story of the main narrative. For an allohistorical construction to be plausible the event which triggers the shift of history from its actual course onto another one must not be dependent on the situation which it causes (5). In fact it is utterly implausible that the massively popular Roosevelt would have been defeated in 1940. Fascism does not just arrive out of a clear blue sky - in Italy, Germany and Spain it was a response to a strong working-class movement which was contesting state power. That was not the situation in 1940 America. The central event of this allonarative, the election of Lindbergh, is only plausible given the situation which it engenders. Indeed the cental axis of this narrative is Lindberg, his subversion by the Third Reich, his election and his disappearance. This takes the 'great man' theory of history so seriously as to ignore a key absurdity in the 'backplot' of the novel, ie that the UK continues fighting the Third Reich even when it receives no material support from the USA - in fact, by the middle of 1940 the British State was unable, financially to continue the war in the absence of American aid.
This novel surely evinces a curious fascination with the Great Man, to such an extent as to marginalise material concerns. Lindberg is constructed as a kind of American Mussolini who comes to power by the force of his own 'charisma'. This is to indulge in a kind of cosy liberal paranoia, whereby fascism can arrive at any time out of a clear sky (6). At least part of the function of this is to create an Other, against which liberals can smugly contrast themselves. As the political villain of this story is Lindberg, so its hero is Roosevelt, yet it was he, not a fascist decorated by Hitler, who did, in actual fact ‘actually did consign an entire ethnic group to hinterland internment camps’ (7). The strategic function of this conceit is to elide the complicity which liberals have so often show to fascism (and indeed Stalinism). Similarly Roth must have been aware that the real Walter Winchell ended his political life as an odious McCarthyite who denounced Josephine Baker to the FBI as a communist agent.
Artistically and politically this novel is a failure. It is intellectually flabby and morally suspect. Its virtue is to show the falsity of the common accusation that alternate history is merely the making up of stories. Taken seriously, it shows that such a story must have an internal consistency and plausibility.
(1) See, esp Ch 8 of Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring, Bantam Press, 19189.
(2) Gavriel D Rosenfeld, The World Hitler Never Made, Cambridge University Press, 2005
(3) See the reviews cited in the Wikipedia entry for the novel. Also <www.reviewsofbooks.com/plot_against_america> (accessed 10 March 07)
(4) Ross Douthat, ‘It Didn’t Happen Here’, Policy Review, Feb- March 2005,. at <http://www.theamericanscene.com/pubs/pr2-305.html> (accessed 10 March 07).
(5) An example of such an alloevent which is clearly independent of its consequences was Churchill being killed by the taxicab which hit him in 1931, and Halifax becoming Prime Minister in May 1940. See Williamson Murray, ‘What a Taxi Driver Wrought’, in Robert Cowley (ed.) What If?, Pan Books 2001, and Andrew Roberts, ‘Prime Minister Halifax’, in Robert Cowley (ed.) More What If?, Pan Books, 2003.
(6) There is a similar absurdity central to the recent movie V for Vendetta – see especially Stephen Fry in his interview on the DVD version.