The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Title: The Plot Against America
Author: Philip Roth
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: 2005
Genre: alternate history, speculative fiction, literary fiction

WARNING: Spoilers below.

This was my first Philip Roth book by design. Perhaps unfairly and almost certainy ignorantly, I have relegated him into a class of authors I’ve recently come to think of as “men’s fiction” writers. To be terribly glib about it, these are men writing books about men for men. I can certainly enjoy these books, but let’s just say I have an increasingly limited appetite for them. But this book had one hell of a set-up (What if Charles Lindbergh beat Franklin Delano Roosevelt to become president in 1940?) and satisfied a Read Harder task (“read a book about politics), so I thought I’d give it a go.

I find this idea endlessly fascinating. I recently read Bill Bryson’s One Summer, which all too vividly reminded me that America during the 1920s was crazy bigotted. It’s so easy to imagine that the 1927 America described by Bryson could, afterthe hardships of the Great Depression, easily be seduced by a charismatic figure promising to save them from more hardship (i.e. WWII) who, though he might not be talking about it during the campaign, happens to agree with large portions of the country who think that those “others” (i.e. Jews) are harming the “real” Americans. Though the book was published in 2005, it feels amazingly relevant in 2016 America as I watch a charismatic presidential candidate promise to save people from hardship (in this case, terrorism, economic struggles, etc.) who happens to mirror beliefs held by many Americans that their lives are harder because of some “others” (in this case, immigrants, Muslims, and, as disturbingly played out while I was reading this, apparently Jews).

The ways that the premise plays out for much of the book is chillingly believable. Lindbergh doesn’t take office and immediately start persecuting Jews and implementing fascism. It’s smaller, subtler things, at least initially. Roth does a great job of showing the way that having anti-semitic leaders gives bigots license to express their hate more aggressively and shamelessly. The government’s policies towards Jews are all couched in language about giving new opportunities to Jews to engage in the American experience all while being designed to weaken communities and dilute Jewish identities. When the rabbi who acts as Lindbergh’s apologist describes these policies, they seem dangerously easonable and non-threatening.

So, as I think it is pretty clear, I was REALLY into the alternate history elements of this book and, for the most part, think they were done really well. Unfortunately, I think I was more interested in these elements than the author was. Early on, it struck me that Roth seemed a more interested in writing presumably-autobiographical book (the young protagonist is named Philip Roth and has an awful lot in common with the author) about his experience growing up in Newark in the 40s. Those elements were all perfectly well done, and will likely be appealing to many readers, but I found them so much less compelling than all the awesome alternate history stuff that I ended up being frustrated through a good chunk of the book.

And then… this is where the spoilery bits come in, so skip this paragraph if that’s an issue for you. After 300 pages of subtly laying out this really interesting alternate history and thoughtfully portraying the the emotional impact of state-sanctioned anti-semitism on these characters, he relegates the bulk of the plot, the rise and fall of American fascism, to 25 pages of newsreel transcripts. And what a bonkers, bananapants 25 pages those are. All of the sudden, after this disturbingly realistic portrayal of how anti-semitism might take hold, there are bonkers secret plots involving Nazi’s stealing the Lindbergh baby, first ladies being kidnapped by the FBI, and threats of war with Canada.

Now, I know that I am particularly sensitive to instances where “literary” types slight genre fiction, but this all just irked the hell out of me. So, after being a frustrated by how much time Roth devoted to the coming of age stuff, this info-dump felt a bit like the author saying… “Eh, I don’t really want to deal with all this genre/plotty stuff anymore, so I’m gonna just cram a bunch of random crap in here here so that I can get back to what I really want to write about.” If you don’t want to write an alternate history, DON’T WRITE AN ALTERNATE HISTORY!!!

So yeah, mixed feelings on this one: 2.5/5 stars.

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