September 20, 2010

The Plot Against America (#124)

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

What I said then:

In the thirties, famous aviator Charles Lindbergh becomes a pro-Nazi President of America and a Jewish family struggle through the fraught times that follow.

What I say now:

I think this book is a masterpiece, and I recommend it without qualification to anybody.

Of all the atrocities that humankind has inflicted on itself, the Holocaust is still (and hopefully, will always be) the worst trauma in our collective memory. Yet as the event itself recedes into the past, it grows more defined, more entrenched in its own specific historical context. You can't think of the Holocaust without thinking of the time and place it occurred, and because we weren't present at that time and place, it can only be rendered as History. But as Roth writes: "The relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides."

Roth's genius is to remove the build-up to the Holocaust from its context, and place it somewhere else ... in his case, America; or, more specifically, the Jewish neighbourhood of Weequahic in Newark, New Jersey. In Roth's book what was "unexpected in its own time" becomes unexpected, terrifying and new all over again to the reader, because it is new, a wholly imagined reality. It's that shock, that recognition that versions of the events described could happen anywhere, even here, even now, that gives The Plot Against America its dark power.

Roth documents with skill and precision the effect that an increasingly rabid, and public, Anti-Semitism has on one family - his. The book is narrated by 'Philip Roth', youngest son of an ordinary Jewish family, who is eight years old at the start of the book. The younger characters - little Phil, older brother Sandy, cousin Alvin - flail about, searching for meaning and reason as they grow up in a world suddenly devoid of those very things, their views shifting between extremes: Alvin goes to Canada to join the war in Europe, then gives up ideology in favour of hustling; Sandy acts as his family's own 'fifth-columnist,' before discovering girls and ceasing to care.

The family's parents, meanwhile, are beautiful portraits of an everyday, under-appreciated brand of heroism. Through every turn for the worse, through each mounting indignity, they find within themselves the steadfast ability to simply do what they believe to be right. It costs them a lot, nearly everything, and more than once they are temporarily brought low by the actions of the Nazi-sympathising government and by the betrayals that it triggers within their own extended family. But they are never defeated. In the last chapter, the mother of the family has an extended phone conversation with a lost and helpless boy (a former neighbour, not one of their sons) in which her quiet resolve, despite everything that has been thrown at her, reaches its summit.

I could go on and on (if I haven't already!), so I'll bring this to a halt now. Halfway through the book, Roth makes his major point explicit when he writes: " 'Because what's history?' [my father] asked rhetorically in his expansive dinnertime instructional mode. 'History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue. Even what happens in his house to an ordinary man - that'll be history too someday.' "

Once history is in books, we might forget that, and we shouldn't. By placing a familiar story in an unfamiliar context, Roth's remarkable novel doesn't let us.

(Whew! Sorry, not all of my reviews will be this heavy, I promise.)

Cheers, JC.

about to start: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
books to go: 123


  1. Hi John.

    Reminds me of the bit in History Boys where an irritated student says 'all the Nazi atrocities et cetera, et cetera!' and the teacher scolds him for resigning all the enormous evil and grief to 'et cetera'.

    I have read Phillip Roth's 'Indignation'. Well written, but a bit unfocused. 'The Plot against America' sounds quite different.


  2. hey mate,

    i returned and remembered to both have fun and to walk by alterating my left foot and then my right (for the most part anyway).

    sounds like an interesting novel this one. your comment about how "you can't think of the Holocaust without thinking of the time and place it occurred, and because we weren't present at that time and place, it can only be rendered as History" made for interesting reading. as Bee and i visited the killing field outside of Phnom Penh we couldn't get over the fact that it had happened so recently.

    anyhoo, my comment is more rambling and long winded than any of your posts so i'll wind it up. keep up the good work.

    ps. have you read any James Elroy? i read the cold six thousand on my travels.
    pps. i also bought the simpsons box set (series 1-20) not relevant, but i know you'd approve!

  3. Dave/Exford - This is the first Roth I've read, I can't say I know much about his other stuff ... but I'll definitely be reading more in the future.

    Kerls/Major - Yeah, I've spoken to people who've been to Auschwitz about this as well, they said it's a totally different thing to stand there where it actually happened, rather than just hearing/reading about it ... (like the book) it makes you realise that it's actual people, just like you, that it all happened to.

    PS - yes, I've read some Ellroy, 'LA Confidential' is great, as is 'My Dark Places', a memoir about trying to track down his mother's murderer about thirty years after it happened ... the guy is messed up!
    PPS - The Simpsons? Damn right I approve!