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October 13th, 2004 John Freeman | Featured Stories
 

Altered States

Philip Roth's counterfactual history suggests it can happen here.

     
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In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published It Can't Happen Here, a frightening novel that imagined how the country might look if right-wing nuts took over the government. Fast-forward to 2004, and America's reigning literary novelist Philip Roth has revisited that same time and place and come up with an even spookier scenario: The Plot Against America.

The year is 1940, and 7-year-old protagonist Philip Roth watches in horror as aviator (and anti-Semite) Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the presidential election. Lindbergh then proceeds to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler, Jews are forced to relocate, and before too long, mobs of anti-Semites are roaming the streets.

The novel brings Roth to a new pitch of familial intimacy as we watch how history impacts the Roths--Philip and his brother Sandy, mother Bess and father Herman. We follow these fictional Roths through two tumultuous years with nervous apprehension then outright terror as America veers dramatically off course from written history.

Critic Harold Bloom, who has already read Plot a third time, told WW by telephone last week that he sees signs in it that Roth, 71, is continuing to develop. "It's a very complex experiment," Bloom says, "a wise and fascinating book." Much as this is the received wisdom about Roth now, these are not words that would have been associated with him midway through his career, when he lived in the ozone trail of sexual hilarity painted by Portnoy's Complaint.

Roth's career could have been lived in the shadow of "that book" had he not in the '90s published a series of other ones--Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral--hitting every note on his long emotional register (pathos, bathos, rage and mourning)--winning every major American literary award in the process, and The Plot Against America will help Roth scoop up yet more laurels. WW spoke to the intensely private but genial Roth to see what he had to say.

WW: Why did you choose "Philip Roth" as your protagonist?

Philip Roth: I told myself this when I started this book: make one change. Just change the 1940 election and then follow out the consequences of it. Therefore I used my family and me. Now, had I invented a family, I would have wound up inventing a family very much like ours. I also thought if I used our real names and said, "Look, I was there," at a certain point the reader might forget that this was an invention. A false memoir is what it is.

The Plot Against America is one of several novels you set in Newark during this period. How do you recreate this city so well?

I feel a very powerful affinity with this place. I grew up there and left when I was 17 years old. I never really lived in Newark again, but my family was there. I also think the riots in the late '60s, which destroyed a lot of Newark, made the city come alive for me again. All the poignancy and the pathos and the tragedy and the horror came through, and that turned me back to this place. As for remembering, this period made a powerful impact on me...I didn't think we were going to win the war. The headlines at the beginning of the war were so dark: Bataan falls; Corregidor falls; Japanese occupy such and such.

Some people might see the poignancy and familial intimacy of this book as (and understand this is in quotation marks) apologies for the "terrible things you said about Jews" in books like Portnoy's Complaint.

I didn't say any terrible things [pauses, then laughs]. I didn't say any terrible things about Jews. I'm not Lindbergh. I just wrote stories about Jews. And there's nothing to take back. I don't see it that way.

It will surprise some people that Lindbergh was so pro-Nazi. Do you feel some responsibility as a novelist to correct interpretations like that?

Well, it was not a motive of mine. And I don't know that it's the responsibility of a novelist to correct those kinds of misperceptions. It simply came with the territory. Look, any isolationist who would have won in 1940--and I do believe, by the way, had Lindbergh been a candidate, that he would have won--would have had to make a deal with Hitler. But Lindbergh was terribly, terribly tempted by the racial mythology of the Nazis, the notion of the superior Aryan man, and the inferiority of all the other races. He bought all that worst stuff of the '30s back then. And he never really apologized or excused himself for his ideas. He was rather stubborn about that.

Do you have dystopic view of America today?

I have a very anxious view and a very pessimistic one, yes, I do. Of all the political disappointments I've had in my lifetime, this is the worst.

You have written about not wanting this book to be interpreted as a roman à clef about current times. How do you want readers to read it?

Well, I think they can just read it as a fantasy of what did not happen. The triumph of America is that this did not happen. It happened in Europe; it did not happen here. They got Fascism; we got Roosevelt.


The Plot Against Americaby Philip Roth(Houghton Mifflin, 391 pages, $26)

Shipments of The Plot Against America to the Frankfurt Book Fair were seized at the German border, as the swastika on the book's jacket is verboten within Germany.

 
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