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0195 | The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

Context: Broke the back of this one whilst outside in the garden reading on some deceptively comfortable garden furniture.

Philip Roth’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel American Pastoral didn’t really do it for me. I felt that the novel got bogged down a whole lot in rabbit trails that stole the focus from the life of the Lvovs. I didn’t think I’d like Roth after this but thankfully, with The Plot Against America, Roth has, in my eyes at least, shown me the genius that I suspected was lying hidden.

This is a great novel. Why so? Well, for a start, it takes a plausible tweak with history as its starting point and then shows what that would have looked like from the viewpoint of a lower-middle class Jewish family in a Jewish neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey.

The tweak is Lindbergh, not Roosevelt, winning the 1940 US election. The family is Roth’s own.

This combination of the vivid reality of his own Jewish childhood and the fantasy of a pro-Nazi US administration works extremely well as a backdrop for Roth’s exploration of issues of governance, racism and what it meant to grow up Jewish in a ‘free’ nation at the penumbra of the Nazi shadow.

I felt that the novel was at its strongest when Roth focussed on portraying events through his quasi-fictitious self. This wonderful device enables him at once to capture both the micro level

…the new boy downstairs wasn’t going to be any more of a picnic than the one before him had been, and this was when I determined to run away again. I was still too much of a fledgling with people to understand that, in the long run, nobody is a picnic and that I was no picnic myself.

and the macro

Mr. Mawhinney was a Christian, a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that fought the Revolution and founded the nation and conquered the wilderness and subjugated the Indian and enslaved the Negro and emancipated the Negro and segregated the Negro, one of the good, clean, hard-working Christian millions who settled the frontier, tilled the farms, built the cities, governed the states, sat in Congress, occupied the White House, amassed the wealth, possessed the land, owned the steel mills and the ball clubs and the railroads and the banks, even owned and oversaw the language, one of those unassailable Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Protestants who ran America and would always run it – generals, dignitaries, magnates, tycoons, the men who laid down the law and called the shots and read the riot act when they chose to – while my father, of course, was only a Jew.

Occasionally, the novel wanders off into sociopolitical areas that Roth was to bring to maturity with American Pastoral. Thankfully, these are few and far between here and the vivid childhood perspective usually dominates to bring to the fore the fears and unkowns of those dark days of the world.

Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.

The boy himself was the stump, and until he was taken to live with his mother’s married sister in Brooklyn ten months later, I was the prosthesis.

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3 comments… add one
  • Jenny 25 July, 2009, 11:13 pm

    Very pleased to read your review of this Phillip Roth novel. I have only read or tried to read one Roth previously which was The Ghost Writer and I put it down after 50 pages. I have had this one sitting on my shelf for a few years and have picked it up , turned it over , and thought …will I?…. wont I?…… only to put it back again but now you have inspired me to go for it !!


  • Jenny 30 July, 2009, 5:00 pm

    Read this book a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it, thanks for the write-up. I liked the descriptions of “re-education camps” that young Jewish children were sent to, and how they were turned against their own parents – mirroring what actually happened in Nazi Germany.

  • Thomas 12 September, 2009, 1:54 am

    My first Roth was The Plot Against America and I loved it. I read about 2/3rds of American Pastoral before I just gave up. I just didn’t care about any of the characters. I am glad I read The Plot Against America first because I doubt I would have bothered if I had read American Pastoral first.

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