Philip Roth Dissects the American Soul
The United States of America, for better or for worse, have been at the centre of the world’s attention for decades now, and even though their position as a global superpower is certainly slipping for a number of reasons, they are still a land of untold opportunities for many people.
In his novel The Plot Against America, Philip Roth introduces us to an alternate historical timeline he concocted in an attempt to conduct a profound examination of the American soul, and where the logical extension of the country’s mentality might lead it down the line.
The story opens in 1940, and right away we are presented with the situation: the presidential race is on, but it seems in this timeline, Charles A. Lindbergh is destined to win against Franklin Roosevelt.
A decorated pilot and hardcore isolationist, Lindbergh’s ideas for moving the country forward are more than a little different from Roosevelt’s. Most notably, he begins making tentative arrangements and understandings with Adolf Hitler himself, which include, among other things, the beginning of antisemitic campaign.
While America is transforming from one day to the next under the new president, a regular family in Newark is beginning to feel the ripples and effects of these changes, and they are threatening to destroy the many things they hold dear to heart, most notably their safety. As the consequences of the new presidency are increasingly pronounced, it becomes clear the United States’ future is far from guaranteed, and it just might herald a darkness unlike any other.
A Familiar Presidency in The Plot Against America
To begin with, I think it’s worth mentioning this book was written in 2004, over sixteen years ago at this point, and nevertheless, it’s quite chilling the degree to which Roth’s fictional administration is similar to the current real one. While Trump definitely isn’t making any secret arrangements with Hitler or calling for campaigns of antisemitism, the process of his administration’s decision-making, their attitude towards society and its problems, and even their use of political jargon are amazingly similar.
In short, what I’m saying is despite this being a work of fiction which came out many years ago and takes place in the 1940s, it remains very much relevant and even potentially educative in regards to the modern world, at least in terms of broad strokes. With this being said, I have to commend the author on his ability to clearly, simply and concisely delve into the complex world of politics as he makes even the most private moments of Lindbergh’s administration known to us.
It’s definitely not easy to navigate the minefield of political jargon, hierarchy and relations for oneself, not to mention explaining it to someone else. Plenty of authors have come up short in this department, but save for a couple of passages, I was surprised at how easily it was for me to follow all the events and developments, especially towards the end when the pace picks up a fair bit.
The fact it all seems to mirror the world of today so well is definitely a huge feather in this story’s cap; the closer truth is to fiction, the more said fiction becomes realistic and important.
The Struggle of Confusion
As much as it delves into politics, it isn’t the sole topic the book is concerned with. Many of the pages are dedicated to exploring the various ramifications of this new Hitler-friendly administration down on the level of regular citizens. Most notably, we follow one regular family and get to acquaint ourselves with them on a very close level, allowing us to see the events from their varied perspectives and how they are personally affected.
When it comes to the characterization in The Plot Against America, I once again have to take my hat off in respect of the author’s abilities. Each and every voice introduced in this story is developed, distinct, and perhaps most importantly, feels entirely real.
We seldom, if ever get the sense we are meeting with someone utterly despicable or totally good; in the end, Roth drives home the point we are all struggling with our own affairs and simply trying to make sense of a very confusing, and at times frightening world. Pure good and evil are questionable constructs when so many different and equally-valid perspectives come into play.
With this ultimately being a novel and not a research paper, there is quite a bit of entertainment to be had in this tumultuous journey through a confused America.
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The plot often veers in unexpected yet completely sensical directions, and there are more than a few surprises in store for us in regards to the fates awaiting certain characters.
The progression is a little bit on the slower side, allowing us to get acquainted with all the conflicting viewpoints bound to confront each other, only to pick up rather drastically in the last quarter where most points do get satisfyingly resolved.
The Final Verdict
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth is an amazing work of fiction which ended up imitating real life to a fascinating degree. If you are interested in the American condition, the future of the nation, its democracy, and the potentially-destructive paths it might find itself on, then I highly recommend you give this book a read.
Philip Milton Roth
(March 19th, 1933 – May 22nd, 2018)
Philip Milton Roth was an American novelist and short story writer with the major distinction of having won four major literary awards (among his many other accolades) in succession: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock, The National Book Award for Sabbath’s Theater, and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for American Pastoral.