Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Playing with Fire, part 1

OK, first off, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is an entertaining work, its ‘counterfactual’ premise evoking for me those yellow-jacketed Gollancz sci-fi novels that I borrowed from the local library before I dutifully moved on to ‘proper’ literature. In fact, the alternative history that Roth limns in this novel -that Charles Lindbergh’s successful Republican candidacy for the American presidency ushers in a pro-Nazi administration -seems like a more restrained version of a book by another Philip, The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, which envisions a United States sliced up by the victorious Axis powers (I liked Dick’s vision of the Nazis’ priorities: by the early 1960s there are men on Mars but TV has yet to get off the ground).But whereas sci-fi employs dystopias as entertainments, we expect that Roth, as a serious novelist, has appropriately (more) serious aims. We expect a message above and beyond those bromides peddled by genre fiction, which usually boil down to being “totalitarian regimes aren’t very pleasant.”

Roth seems to want refine the slightly more sophisticated warning delivered by 1935’s It Can’t Happen Here (the novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis that depicted a fascist regime in the US) by suggesting that not only are Americans not immune from the risks of fascism, but that the country’s inherent anti-Semitism needed only a convincing demagogue to ignite and foment pogroms across the mid-West.This is where my problems with the novel begin. First, whereas Lewis’s novel had a clear political purpose -to awake an isolationist nation to the threat growing in Nazi Germany -the extra-literary reasons that could explain why Roth would feel it necessary to depict working-class Americans as itching to become Cossacks seem to be lacking. There has been some vague talk that has attempted to find a correlation between Lindberg -vain of his plain talking demeanour and fond of taking to the air (literally) whenever troubles arise- with the current incumbent of the White House, who likewise appears to be airborne when, or rather soon after, major crises arise. But such veiled parallels seem weak, and such is Roth’s skill with evocative detail that any attempt to impose the situation at the start of the 21st century on this dense work of supposition is likely to be a stretch.

Indeed, such is Roth’s narrative talent that his docu-drama approach would almost fool anyone with a passing knowledge of the history (or rather pre-history) of the era. However, a second look should expose gaps. For example: While nobody could persuasively argue that the American character is intrinsically more democratic than the German or Italian, it is equally asinine to present a scenario, based on the facts as they stood at that time, in which all it takes to push the U.S. into a pro-Nazi state is the intervention of a famous aviator. The United States, unlike Germany, emerged victorious from the war, did not suffer the (perceived) humiliation at Versailles, or the subsequent struggles between extreme right- and left-wing elements that paved the way for a man who promised unity and order.

In short, the United States at the start of the 1940s lacked the turmoil that fascism requires, and to present the lurch into Nazism as the product of the fortuitous arrival of Lindbergh at the Republican Party Convention tests the realist novel’s (even a counterfactual one) contract with the reader that even fictional events should be accommodated by actual human psychology, whether it be individual or mass.

Moreover, the flip side of Roth’s demonization of Lindbergh as the American Hitler is the books somewhat inexplicable deification of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is supposed to miss out on his unprecedented third term due to a Republican landslide. As Roth must know, Roosevelt had imbued the casual anti-Jewish sentiments of his WASP aristocratic background. This manifested itself most acutely through his refusal to order, or rather his complete unwillingness to discuss, the bombing of the concentration camps, particularly Auschwitz. The callous turning away of would-be Jewish refugees from the U.S. under the auspices of the War Refugee Board is another example of an Administration not exactly characterized by philosemitism. (More on the subject here.)

Faced with such facts, one wonders if the Roosevelt depicted in The Plot Against America has not been lightly whitewashed to make him stand out all the better against the banality of evil represented by Lindbergh? This again raises the question of what the responsibilities are of the novelist who decides to insert his fictional world into the realm of facts.So, if the book lacks a clear didactic purpose and is grounded in a problematic historical perspective, this is troubling, because any book that draws on the suffering of minorities during the Second World War is open to accusations of taking a shortcut to profundity over mass graves. But for a work with an agenda no wider than illustrating the author’s individual and idiosyncratic perspective on the Jewish experience in the United States, nodding in the direction of the Holocaust starts to take the reader into the territory occupied by Sylvia Plath when she is talking about “chuffing” off to Dachau in the poem “Daddy.”

In my next post, I’m going to talk a bit more about this: how by focusing on fabricated terrors, the novel elides the true horrors and injustices that were unfolding during the book’s timespan, but, alas, in the real world.