Empty 'Plot'

The Argument

Mirth and rage missing in Philip Roth's novel about anti-Semitism loosed in America

October 03, 2004|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

It seemed like a brilliant idea for a novel:

To transplant the European nightmare to America's Jews in 1940, to chronicle their terror while something akin to the Final Solution is being planned and executed on American soil, and to chronicle it, moreover, from the point of view of a Jewish child, an American Anne Frank, here re-imagined as a 7-year-old New Jersey boy.

And it seemed, at first, as though Philip Roth would be the only man for the job. He is, after all, the troubadour of Jewish Newark, who has spent decades composing narratives both carnal and ethereal, comic and tragic, ridiculous and sublime, about young men growing out of an urban immigrant experience into the world at large. In a late-career flurry, he has produced three supremely moving novels that plumb the souls of individuals as they are knocked around by the imperatives of history.

But brilliant ideas do not always become brilliant novels. The truth is that Roth's latest book, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, 400 pages, $26) is such a comprehensive failure that, at times, it's hard to believe that Roth himself, and not some eager but less proficient assistant, actually wrote it.

Part of the reader's disbelief comes from the great expectations that Roth created with those three previous novels -- Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain -- each of which probe, with exquisite generosity, the consciousness of characters who find themselves in grandly tragic predicaments. Other recent novels by Roth, including Operation Shylock and I Married A Communist, are less magnificent but no less ambitious. They offer familiar Rothian quirks: entertainingly manic rants against all variety of slights and injustices; literary game-playing with doppelgangers, counter-lives, and levels of fictional reality; and long and often dazzling attempts by characters to justify their reprehensible behavior.

The Plot Against America displays none of Roth's characteristic mix of rage and hilarity. Nor does it adequately convey much of the profound sympathy for its characters that has enriched Roth's best novels. It offers instead a straightforward twofold narrative: first, an extended alternative history, in which he imagines that the aviator-hero and pro-isolationist celebrity Charles Lind-bergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1940, setting in motion a series of events that promote fascism and anti-Semitism throughout the land; and second, woven through that pseudo-historical account, the story of how those events affect the domestic situation of little Philip Roth, a third-grader who lives with his insurance-salesman father Herman, housekeeping mother Bess, and 12-year-old brother Sandy on all-Jewish Summit Avenue in the Weequahic section of Newark.

As its title suggests, Roth's novel is stuffed with plot, its story pains-takingly crafted and controlled. Such a plot may have been satisfying to write, but it is a grinding chore to read, as waves of fake historical details keep heaving toward the reader like a dreary inexorable sea. After the radio address in which Lindbergh blames the Jews for leading America toward involvement in World War II (unlike most of the novel, an event that really happened), the Republicans nominate him for president and he beats Roosevelt by a landslide. Lindbergh quickly meets with Hitler and signs accords with both Germany and Japan, at the same time supporting the Fuhrer's plan to conquer the USSR. Meanwhile, on the home front, the government creates an Office of American Absorption, which institutes a volunteer work program for teenagers called "Just Folks," designed to uproot Jewish boys from their homes and assimilate them into gentile environments.

Before long, Germany's Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop is invited to a state dinner at the White House, despite widespread protests including strong opposition from Roosevelt, who emerges from seclusion to speak out. The German-American Bund stages a massive rally in Madison Square Garden in support of Lindbergh, while Lindy himself, who appears here as a laconic comic-book flying superhero, pilots his plane around the country reassuring citizens that his pro-fascist, antiwar policies are the surest guarantees of American safety.

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