Sunday, October 09, 2005

On a Tear

The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides...

Philip Roth has been arguably the best novelist working in English the past 40 years. I say that with an admittedly narrow knowledge of contemporary novelists, but the critics seem to agree that if he's not the best, he's certainly one of the best. And The Plot Against America only increases my already deep respect for this guy's work (note that I didn't say "for this guy"--apparently he used to torture Claire Bloom, so maybe he's a dickhead as well as a genius writer--not an unusual combo, that). But he writes damnably interesting novels, and his past five or six are spectacularly good.

The alternate history genre typically falls under Fantasy/Sci-Fi in the bookshops, and others have tackled the What If the Fascists won WW2? scenario. What sets Roth's book apart is its exquisite dual existence in a fictional past and in the here-and-now. Sure, the novel is about Charles Lindbergh the American hero and anti-Semitic Fascist flunky beating FDR for the presidency in '40 and keeping the US out of WW2. And Roth spares no detail in creating vivid characters and settings and realistic events--one believes his alternate history, one becomes involved in the fates of his Jewish characters as things get scarier and scarier in a changing America.

But his novel is not really about a potential America 60 years ago. It's about America right now, and the potential America looming just over the horizon. Roth takes the fun and politically admirable but woefully executed It Can't Happen Here and mixes in a bit of Kafka and Orwell to not only portray the ugly underbelly of right-wing "values" as they are celebrated by far too many current Americans, but to warn us of the dire urgency we should feel about our likely un-democratic future. When Lindbergh is challenged by bad polls or crises, he flies around in his own high-tech plane in full aviator regalia and makes speeches about security and might to an adulatory media (sound familiar?). Only Walter Winchell speaks out, and he's lambasted as a Jew hired by the Brits to propagandize on their behalf--instead of the "liberal" media, we have the "Jewish" media.

The novel's first half focuses on the way families and communities struggle to cope with what they regard as the hi-jacking of their country by a Fascist sympathizer. Some Jews flee to Canada, some enlist to fight for England, many cozy up to the new Administration and get rich. Families fragment as some children think Lindbergh is great and join his special Jewish educational corps. Others suspect the worst--then the worst begins to happen and the novel shifts from micro to the macro. Winchell criticizes the president one to many times and is finally kicked off the air. Von Ribbentropp dines at the White House, Jews are relocated to midwestern towns to be "Americanized," and things take a disastrous but expected turn.

I became so involved I polished this off in two days--heartily recommended. Eerie, creepy, sardonic as always and yet surprisingly optimistic, this is another masterpiece for Roth.