I've read a shocking novel by Philip Roth. "So what else is new?" Hasn't he been the literary enfant terrrible at least since Portnoy's Complaint? So he has, but The Plot Against America (published in 2004) shocked me for a reason I never would have expected: it's bad. Really.
As anyone who has followed Roth's writing career probably knows, Plot has a big "concept" (often a sign of a writer who's stuck). Set in the early 1940s, it's fictional alternative history. Charles A. Lindbergh is drafted by the Republicans to run for president in 1940 ... and wins. That's when serious trouble starts for the narrator, a nine-year-old named (wait for it) Philip Roth. His previously more or less normal youth and his family's life in the Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, is turned upside down.
Lindbergh, you see, is a terrible anti-Semite. So is his vice president, Burton K. Wheeler (an actual U.S. senator of the period). Lindbergh and Adolph Hitler reach an understanding -- Hitler can have free rein to gather Europe, including England, into the Third Reich in exchange for leaving America neutral and at peace.
Roth describes the growing persecution of American Jews. It starts fairly innocently, with a program through which young Jews are temporarily resettled in the American heartland, the better to be assimilated. Philip's -- the character's -- older brother goes off for a stint with a Kentucky farm family. He returns as a Lindbergh spokesman, to the horror of his relatives.
As things develop, pogroms erupt in a dozen American cities, and it's touch-and-go whether Newark will be among them. On October 15, 1942:
Just before dawn Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf [a Lindbergh supporter, married to Philip's aunt] is taken into custody by the FBI under suspicion of being "among the ringleaders of the Jewish conspiratorial plot against America." ... Others arrested in the early-morning roundup include Governor Lehman, Bernard Baruch, Justice Frankfurter, Franfurter protege and Roosevelt administrator David Lilienthal, New Deal advisers Adolf Berle and Sam Rosenman, labor leaders David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, economist Isador Lubin, leftist journalists I.F. Stone and James Wechsler, and socialist Louis Waldman.
Walter Winchell, the gossip columnist turned Lindbergh basher, is assassinated. Martial law is declared throughout the country. "Under martial law, America remains calm, though the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and the leaders of the American Nazi Party have jointly called upon the acting president 'to implement extreme measures to protect America from a Jewish coup d'état.'" And so on.
Although the novel is explicitly the drama of a family under the shadow of persecution, large patches of it read like a history book, at times like an old newspaper.
I was waiting for Roth to let us in on the joke. Surely he had something up his sleeve. He must be planning to kayo us with irony. If any irony was there, it was too subtle for me. Roth seems to have meant for us to take his American Jewish Hell literally.
How could the great Philip Roth have sunk to this?
I mean great. I admire Roth's work tremendously, even though some of it is uncomfortable to read. He's a superb stylist -- not in the whiz-bang colorful manner of Updike or Nabokov, but elegantly spare. He simply has the right word for every purpose. Often the words are plain, sometimes slangy, but they convey exactly what he wants to convey, with what overtones, in what mood.
Roth's detractors say he's always writing about the Jews. Well, Dickens wrote a lot of novels about the English. But part of what makes Roth's books -- his other books -- so entertaining is that his central characters are ambivalent about their religious culture. His Jews carry on their ghetto mentality in the United States where there are no Jewish ghettos, just neighborhoods. They are alienated from the goyim, yet want to be part of the gentile smart set.
This can result in terrific dialogue, of the kind Roth is famous for, between Jews with opposing views of secularism, Israel, assimilation, anything Jews can debate (which is anything). I don't know that Roth would agree with it, but he'd probably appreciate one of G.K. Chesterton's typically paradoxical quips: "It is strange that the Jews should be so anxious for international agreements. For one of the few really international agreements is a suspicion of the Jews."
The Plot Against America includes some of Roth's choice language and moments of lovely empathy. It contains a few brief arguments -- father vs. older son, principally -- about "President" Lindbergh. But compared to the intellectually rambunctious verbal fencing matches in, if I remember right, The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, those in Plot are perfunctory remnants. Roth's heart isn't in them.
Only a few years after the publication of the masterly, psychologically acute American Pastoral, Roth has devolved into something very like paranoia. He's so serious about the U.S., of the 1940s anyway, as a seething pit of anti-Semitism that he actually includes several appendixes citing what he thinks is evidence.
I'm not that familiar with all the details of Lindbergh's life, but he showed bad judgment in allowing himself to accept awards from the Nazi German hierarchy, for which he was something of an apologist (before World War II). Having your only child kidnapped and murdered can perhaps cloud your perceptions for you. Roth includes in the appendix as exhibit A for the prosecution Lindbergh's (actual) speech to the America First Committee, dedicated to keeping the country out of the European war, in September 1941. Here's the money quote from Lindbergh's address:
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make them bitter enemies of any race.
No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. ...
[The Jews'] greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government. I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people [whom he also accused of luring the U.S. into the war]. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.
In hindsight this seems mistaken, of course. "Both races, I admire" is disingenuous, not to mention incorrect in its use of "race." For all that, it seems to me essentially a political argument, and within the realm of legitimate discourse in its own time. It is hardly a call for anti-Semitic frenzy of the kind Roth describes in the "Lindbergh" administration and the following "Wheeler" administration.
I read -- once again, this is from real, not "alternative," history -- about an American army unit that liberated the few survivors of a Nazi concentration camp (whose inmates were mostly Jews) in 1945. That same American army had doubtless suffered many casualties as it fought its way through Germany. General Eisenhower ordered every man, woman, and child in the next-door German village to march through the concentration camp and view the corpses and emaciated victims. That act, by Philip Roth's reckoning, was performed by the army of a country that wanted to kill its own Jews.
Roth remains on my short list of brilliant contemporary novelists, for what he produced before Plot and probably later (I haven't read anything more recent from him). So this is written more in distaste than anger. But a little anger, yes.