The Plot Against America

Philip Roth $26

Houghton Mifflin, October 2004

For several weeks, I was unable to understand why I kept setting down Philip Roth’s new book, The Plot Against America, finally abandoning it three-fourths of the way through from sheer disinterest. And this despite having tremendous admiration for Mr. Roth. *

It is well written, of course – he’s a master of language, a believeable premise offering the promise of a magnum opus as Lucky Lindy, the handsome young anti-Semitic American Nazi is elected president in 1940 over FDR to set up an authoritarian regime, the voting having been based on no more than shallow image, irrelevant accomplishment, and snappy slogans. Dare I say it -- Déjà vu?

But the promise fades as Mr. Roth settles into his usual theme, something that he and others have done better. He decides we’d rather watch him examine his own fears and neuroses than really get into the issues floating about.

In his 1965 autobiographical novel, I, Jan Cremer, the Dutch artist put in his opening lines what it takes Philip Roth nearly 400 pages to say – “I am the center of all events in the universe.” (I paraphrase from memory, not having a copy at hand):

“It was 1942. The whole world was at war. Hitler was bombing England every night and I learned to shit in my potty.”

Mr. Roth has taken that tack many times before and done it well, even brilliantly, taken the personal to the universal, so I was still unable to understand why reading the book had become more and more of a chore. And why, more recently, other reviewers were applauding, although it was obvious to me that with some the applause was more polite than enthusiastic.

An article by San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon on the Centenary of Graham Greene caused something to click:

“What would he [Graham Greene] make of it [our current political world]?

It would have been as if he had never left, as if his novels were written last year rather than decades ago which is, of course, a grand testament to his work.

Americans once again caught up in a bloody adventure in a country on the other side of the globe. Decent people made blind to their humanity by a call to duty. Moral compasses spinning madly; intrigue lurking all around.

Graham Greene, on his 100th birthday today, could have honestly said, ‘Nothing has changed’ – exactly as he would have expected...

The Western world finds itself in international turmoil, in situations similar to those of Greene's slumming characters, where it's not always clear that one is doing the right thing. And we find ourselves trying to divvy up the world into categories of absolutes -- Good and Evil -- when our everyday existence, as echoed by Greene's protagonists, tells us that things are much more complicated than that.

"The Quiet American" (1955) is the novel that immediately comes to mind. It's an almost head-wagging look at naivete and its lethal consequences, in which Greene's view of foreign relations was summed up in the character of his debauched journalist wasting away in Vietnam: It's the innocents of the world who do the most damage because they can't imagine ill coming from their actions. Here, in his novel of a mysterious young American who comes to Vietnam just as the French are losing control of the country, Greene was taking to task self-righteousness that masquerades as moral crusade, in a group of people who won't consider the possibility that they might be wrong because even to harbor such a doubt is a sign of weakness. That much misery may arise out of their need to do "good" is beside the point. After all, when you're right, you're right.”

Philip Roth says oh no, The Plot Against America wasn’t intended to be about the Bush administration, but we can’t help but see it that way. Not only is the global and local game of “Be like us or die” afoot, but this administration even has its own Jews to blame when things go wrong (Wolfowitz, Perle, et al.).

The problem with this book is that the moral dilemma of the situation Mr. Roth establishes is so much bigger and more overwhelming than the dilemma he examines. Certainly, forcible cultural assimilation is something to be resisted, but it is not that same as the loss of the soul. Mr. Roth missed his chance to fully explore the contrast and conflict between the dramatic and absolutist Manichaean black and white and what is usually described as “various shades of gray” but is actually the view that allows for and includes a riot of colors. Kandinsky.

This book is only incidentally black or white or filled with color and leaves the larger questions unasked. It’s Portnoy’s Complaint without the liver. (Not coincidentally, in mythic terms, the liver is the seat of the soul.)

* Far from having any antipathy toward Mr. Roth, I have long felt I was beholden to him, ever since the day in 1969 or 70 when I was a skinny stoned young freak visiting the apartment of a long tall blonde with whom I had once worked. (Because of her tall slender frame, people identified her as a Jane Fonda type, but to know her was to realize she was much more like the young Margaret Dumont, a very fetching young woman in the years before Groucho Marx fell in love with her lifelong total cluelessness and made her the Grande Dame continually enveloped in a cloud of unknowing, all his and Chico’s double entendres skimming by above her head.) We went into the front room, the one with the big windows and the view of the river, coincidentally her bedroom. She pushed me back onto her bed, threw a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint down near me, said, “Now I know what Jewish boys like” and proceeded to show me what she’d learned. I remember thinking, at least for the first moment, “Philip Roth, I owe you one.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the one.


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