Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Playing with Fire, part II

In the alternative reality presented in The Plot Against America, the relocation of America�s Jewish population�including the narrator�s family�under the Homestead 42 scheme is seen one of the final steps in cementing the Lindbergh Administration�s totalitarian tendencies. But this fictional act of state coercion pales in comparison with the real Executive Order 9066, which Roosevelt signed in February 1942 to order the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Two-thirds of those held in camps were U.S. citizens and all inmates over 17 were asked �loyalty questions,� interrogations that outraged the Nisei (U.S.-born Japanese Americans). The real suffering of acknowledged innocent American citizens has largely been overlooked by U.S. popular culture (the only film I can think of that addresses the subject, albeit tangentially, is the 1955 classic, Bad Day at Black Rock) because those who were the victims of the policy shared the same skin color as the official enemy. In the light of the neglected reality, what is one to make of Roth�s �lifting� of actual state policies to forward his fictional scenario? The novelist, of course, owes nothing to the polity and is free to burgle reality to construct a subjective vision. But one wonders what Japanese-American readers (the ones Roth might still attract after the gleeful presentation of anti-Japanese stereotypes in Sabbath�s Theater) make of these unacknowledged parallels?Whether Roth consciously or unconsciously modeled the experiences of his characters after those endured by other Americans remains open to question, but it is unarguable that the elephant-in-the-room in this book is the Holocaust, the real extirpation of millions of Jews. Unsurprisingly, the Final Solution is not directly addressed by any of the characters in the novel�if it were, I suspect that Roth�s hysterical souffl� would collapse in an instant. Despite Roth�s search for gravitas since the early 1990s, he is essentially a comic novelist, whose identity is inexorably linked to optimistic, affluent, post-war America. The Plot Against America reflects this identity in its family-based histrionics, the faint echoes of Portnoy in the narrator, and upbeat conclusion. To juxtapose these frothy elements with the Nazi genocide would be like holding a photograph of Disney�s Cinderella�s Castle against a picture of the gates of Auschwitz.If appropriating the Holocaust, even obliquely, to present what is ultimately a piece of speculative whimsy is such a problematic venture, why did Roth do it? I think it is linked to Roth�s uneasy relationship to his background, mentioned above. It is well-known that Roth has a long-standing interest in East European writing, having edited a collection for Penguin. Speaking of a visit to Prague to honor Kafka, Roth reflected on the encounters he had there with writers:

�They made me very conscious of the difference between the private ludicracy of being a writer in America and the harsh ludicrousness of being a writer in eastern Europe. These men and women were drowning in history. They were working under tremendous pressure and the pressure was new to me – and news to me, too. They were suffering for what I did freely and I felt great affection for them, and allegiance; we were all members of the same guild.�

Is it possible that such an experience led Roth to share George Steiner�s attitude that authoritarian regimes somehow perversely �value� the writer more than affluent democracies such as America�s, which simply ignore them? The spectacle of the oppression of Eastern Bloc writers in the Cold War era caused many writers in the West to bemoan the paltriness of their oppression. Roth, who has made the journey from having characters using a slice of liver as a sex aid to joining the august canon of The Library of America, has recently done a sterling job of showing repression and ideological extremism in America, perhaps in an effort to underline the seriousness of the issues facing a writer living in a fractious democracy. Recent books have covered the McCarthyite hearings (I Married a Communist), Political Correctness (The Dying Animal), and left-wing terrorism (American Pastoral). But none of these scenarios could plausibly present the narrator (in Roth�s case typically a proxy for the author) as at risk for merely existing. The Eastern European scenario–glorious persecution of the artist–is sadly a non starter. Having the route to this ultimate accolade barred can do strange things to a writer. For example, Harold Pinter ludicrously tried to lay claim to the mantle of hunted dissident when he announced that his circle of well-heeled socialist artists, the 20 June Group, would �meet again and again until they break down the windows and drag us out.�Although Roth is no stranger to theatrics, he is a cannier and less coarse operator than Pinter. And in The Plot Against America, with its moats of postmodern self-reflexivity and crennelations of anti-anti-Semitism, Roth has found a secure refuge in which to wallow in a warm bath of victimhood. With its final section entitled �Perpetual Fear,� the novel aspires to the unassuageable paranoia of Kafka, who occupies the tallest plinth in Roth�s pantheon. Yet whereas Kafka�s deadpan style (at least in translation) and curiously indifferent narrators heighten the reader�s sense of dread, the bare-knuckle anxiety and worst-case-scenario speculation in the Roth novel appropriately achieves quite the contrary effect.