The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

What if…Charles Lindbergh made a surprise bid for the 1940 Republican presidential nomination, took the White House, and proceeded to form a pact with Nazi Germany to keep America out of the World War brewing up in Europe and Asia, while simultaneously initiating policies to encourage “America’s religious and national minorities to become further incorporated into the larger society.” Most to the point of this book, how would those events have affected little “Phil” Roth, 9 years old and growing up in an urban, almost entirely Jewish, New Jersey neighborhood.

The events of the Lindbergh presidency are spelled out in substantial detail, from the administration’s integrationist programs to the fearless criticisms of muckraking journalist Walter Winchell. Candid Culture wrote that even though a basic plot synopsis seems to be full of action, “I kept waiting patiently for something to happen and oftentimes thought about putting the book down for good!” I didn’t find the book uneventful, myself, but I suspect Candid’s reaction reflects the two-layered structure of the book. While the main storyline is the fictionalized memoir of Roth’s childhood in urban New Jersey, a great deal of the actual text is taken up with third person description of the alt-historical events playing out on the national stage. While the national storyline was interesting and well thought out, it lacked the immediacy of the smaller and more mundane dramas that the protagonist was directly involved with.

I’m not sure if this only weakly-mixed layering of broad and narrow plots is simply Roth’s style, or if it’s a symptom of a “literary” author working in the unfamiliar territory of alternate history, where sf authors have developed techniques to more solidly connect the plot in the large and small domains, and where readers are more used to working out the details of the historical changes from small glimpses through the eyes of the characters on the page.

However, in support of the novel, even the broad expository sections are written smoothly and carefully, so that they don’t descend into a dry journalistic style. The plot weaves together enough threads to give a multifaceted view of the premise, with Phil’s various uncles, aunts, cousins, and closer family members each reacting differently to the new isolationist America. And the issues at hand, about American identity, veiled bigotry, and the fragility of democracy, are all worth frequent re-examination. And I’m not against any blurring of lines between SF and “literature”, whether from one side or the other. Overall, I’d definitely recommend the book for both SF readers interested in sampling the literary world, or “literature” readers interested in how the unreality of SF can enhance commentary on the real world.

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