Friday, February 16, 2007

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

What if America had elected a staunch isolationist as its president in 1940? What if the United States had not come to the defense of England and France in World War II? Just as disturbing a question is what would have happened right here in America if that president had fascist leanings?

Philip Roth provides one possible answer to these questions in his alternative history, The Plot Against America. The isolationist president in Roth's fantasy is Charles Lindbergh. The real-world version of Lindbergh truly was an adamant isolationist, held anti-semitic viewpoints, and may have been a fascist and a Nazi sympathizer. Lindbergh as president opens up some interesting possibilities.

But this isn't just a tale of politics and world events - this is an alternative history of the author himself. The main character is Phil Roth, the author in his pre-teen childhood. Mr. Roth's real-world family and neighborhood are the novel's major players. This approach is the book's primary strength, but also its greatest weakness. Events of global significance ultimately affect real people on a personal level. How better to show this than through the eyes of an impressionable young boy? However, what could have been an intimate portrayal of interrupted youth often turns into an expression of the author's paranoia.

And this leads to what flusters me most about The Plot Against America - I can't tell if the paranoia comes from the author or the characters. Is this a rational man writing about a paranoid father and alternate self, or is this a paranoid man expressing his own biases through his characters? Unable to answer this question, I was also unable to be sure I was getting the message the author intended.

Many events seemed totally implausable to me. I can accept that America could have had its own Krystalnacht if history had unfolded differently. I was expecting the book to include such events before I ever started reading, but the way things happened in the book didn't ring true. Some plot elements were borderline ridiculous. Since I couldn't tell where the author was coming from, I didn't know what to make of these highly unlikely occurrences.

The ending bugs me. First, it's tightly linked to one of those unlikely circumstances. Second, it provides an easy way out of the mess America got itself into. The alternate America strayed from the path we know, and as a result the essence of what America is also should have changed. In Plot, the easy-out ending lets America get right back on track, with the only long-term difference between fantasy and reality being a chapter in the history books.

One of the book's strengths is the way it shows how we are affected by uncertainty, and by our own perception of how others view us.

I've been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. The whole premise really grabbed my attention. Now that I've made it through from cover to cover, I wouldn't say that I'm completely disappointed, but neither did it satisfy my expectations. I'm writing this review a couple of months after I finished the book, and can tell you it didn't stay with me.

3 Stars
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