I bought a copy of this novel for no better reason than Philip Roth is a name that keeps coming up as a … what’s that word? – ‘comparator’ on TV, radio and podcasted review shows. ‘How does it compare with Philip Roth?’ a guest is asked. Then the guest opines on Philip Roth in general and we all know where they stand. Well I haven’t known. I think the same thing applies to Alice Walker and Janet Frame. My partner has some of their books, so I’ll have to borrow them, which is ideal when you read on a budget; but concluding my premise, I now have vague idea about Roth now that I’ve read some.
Unfortunately though, the above is faulty. For although I can say I’ve now read Roth, The Plot Against America operates on such a singular conceit that it’s hard to imagine how it could ‘represent’ its author, no matter who that might be. The story follows an American Jewish family at a time when Charles Lindbergh, aviator extraordinaire and anti-semite, successfully runs for President. The narrator is a child in a family that becomes increasingly divided in its reactions. This is a vision of a wartime America led by a man credited with keeping his country prosperous and out of an expanding world war, while, conversely, being suspected by his opponents of being a Hitlerian sympathiser likely to sell his country out to inevitable Nazi invasion.
It’s easy to expect some grisly descriptions of internment camps, yet by halfway, it’s clear that the effects and consequences envisioned are far subtler, particularly in respect of everyday social situations and how anxiety looms large at uncertain times. The narrative perspective of a child trying to understand an adult world is articulated in the language of a worldly adult. What I longed for was some reference to that adult and his world. The absence of the persona shedding hindsight on their childhood was curious. Was he hiding something? Why not exploit the narrative possibilities in making comparisons across time? Was this all a device to keep readers subsumed as much as possible in the restrictions of experiencing the here-and-now? This narrative aspect did leave me feeling that this otherwise rich novel still managed to miss something out. Nevertheless, there’s a growing sense of menace to the everyday that pervades the events as if it were a Lynch movie based more in sociopolitics than human animality. This sensation conveys the cultural instabilities that can boil beneath the surface of even a country that is often referred to as the world’s greatest democracy.
The Plot Against America is a good read for anyone interested in alternative histories (although it isn’t exactly one), Jewishness and/or cultural integration (which is its real subject), or simply getting an idea of how Roth has become such a name dropped into literary discussions.
Extract from p.70:
My father turned to us. “Got to be done, boys.” To my mother he said, “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Having finished his discussion with the manager, the policeman now came around to talk to my father. He didn’t smile as he had intermittently while standing and listening to the manager, but he spoke nonetheless without a trace of anger and in a tone that seemed friendly at first. “What’s the problem, Roth?”
“We sent a deposit for a room at this hotel for three nights. We received a letter confirming everything. My wife has the paperwork in our bags. We get here today, we register, we occupy the room and unpack, we go out to sightsee, and when we come back we’re evicted because the room was reserved for somebody else.”
“And the problem?” the cop asked.
“We’re a family of four, Officer. We drove all the way from New Jersey. You can’t just throw us into the street.”
“But,” said the cop, “if somebody else reserves a room—”
“But there is nobody else! And if there was, why should we take a back seat to them?”
“But the manager returned your deposit. He even packed up your belongings for you.”
“Officer, you’re not understanding me. Why should our reservation take a back seat to theirs? I was with my family at the Lincoln Memorial. They have the Gettysburg Address up on the wall. You know what the words are that are written there? ‘All men are created equal.’ ”
“But that doesn’t mean all hotel reservations are created equal.”
The policeman’s voice carried to the bystanders at the edge of the lobby; unable any longer to control themselves, some of them laughed aloud.
My mother left Sandy and me standing alone in order to step forward now and intervene. She had been waiting for a moment when she wouldn’t make things worse, and, despite her rapid breathing, seemed to believe this was it. “Dear, let’s just go,” she beseeched my father. “Mr. Taylor found us a room nearby.”
“No!” my father cried, and he threw off the hand with which she
had tried to snatch his arm. “This policeman knows why we were evicted. He knows, the manager knows, everybody in this lobby knows.”
“I think you ought to listen to your wife,” the cop said. “I think you ought to do what she tells you, Roth. Leave the premises.” Jerking his head in the direction of the door, he said, “And before you wear out my patience.”