Even literary giants stumble from time to time, although it is telling that when a writer of Philip Roth’s caliber takes a break from greatness, his work is still good enough to satisfy. That said, his latest work of fiction, The Plot Against America, is a disappointment of staggering proportions, if only because I look forward to the latest Roth as I would an extraordinarily fine meal. Limp when it should be alive with possibility, ordinary when it should break free of mainstream conventions, Plot simply refuses to be anything other than a work of historical revisionism — a “what if” potboiler that simply did not require the mind and pen of one of America’s most muscular talents. And while it seems like a can’t-miss premise — imagine Charles Lindbergh’s victory in the 1940 presidential race and subsequent partnership with the Axis powers during World War II — the plot-driven nature of the prose failed to bring out what is always so inspiring about Roth’s fiction: the characters. A mere 24 hours after closing the book, I can’t give you much insight into these people, and what’s more, there wasn’t a memorable passage to be found. Again, it’s not Jackie Collins by any stretch, but Roth has always been held to a higher standard. As he should be, given the sheer brilliance of Sabbath’s Theater.
If I must be honest, I’ll admit that I missed the sex. The Plot Against America is all but devoid of hot, Rothian passion [Ed Note: See Portnoy’s Complaint], and it’s quite tame by comparison to other, more “erect” novels. There are no talks concerning masturbation, adultery, perversion, or even lust, unless one counts a young Sandy Roth’s hard-on for the famed aviator and his plan to keep young boys from dying in Europe. Instead, Roth focuses almost exclusively on the political and social pains of the Roth family of Newark, New Jersey. As the book contains numerous autobiographical details, it works as an insight into Philip’s childhood angst and budding Jewish identity, but we get none of the biting humor, which has always been a Roth trademark. I suppose there’s little humor to be found in a fascist takeover of the United States and the establishment of a pogrom disguised as “assimilation camps,” but even satire gives way to pained earnestness, which is rarely a good quality, even in the best of authors.
As a great admirer of historical fiction (even of the often silly “what if” genre), I heartily absorbed the day-to-day details of 1940s American life, from the Walter Winchell radio programs to the necessity of telephone operators to place calls. And yet, the charm of social conventions before the explosion of technology never translated into any larger meaning, which I believe is required of any book that attempts to revisit the past and by so doing, alter our future. Is Roth commenting on our current militarism and Patriot Act age? Our mindless devotion to pseudo-heroes who need only wear the uniform in order to secure our loyalty? Our willingness to sacrifice unpopular minorities for the presumed security of the majority? One could argue that these ideas are dealt with indirectly, but they are hardly the raison d’etre for the entire text. Some critics have argued (I know I sound like a Fox News reporter when I discuss unnamed sources, but for the sake of space, trust me on this one) that Roth has brought liberal Jewish paranoia to a new, unhealthy extent (ignoring the far more widespread persecution of African-Americans in the process), but I’m not sure of the validity of those remarks. It is well and good that Roth examines anti-Semitism, for that remains personal and immediate (think of what critics would say if he deigned to speak for blacks). But the exaggerated nature of the prose did prevent my full connection with the material.
How so, you ask? After Walter Winchell announces his candidacy for 1944 and is assassinated for his troubles, riots begin in several major cities, including Louisville, Kentucky, the site of the shooting. Nazi sympathizers and assorted goons start fires, drag Jews from their cars, and in the end, take well over a hundred lives. But when it is announced that the United States is about to invade Canada (after the confusing disappearance of President Lindbergh puts Burton K. Wheeler in the White House), I simply sighed, rather than accepted the new direction. And what about the Lindbergh’s sudden departure? I’d tell you, but it is so fanciful and absurd as to move the book from re-imagining the past to hysterical fantasy, with a detour through an especially nutty conspiracy theory. Again, I can accept all of this as an entertaining lark, but come now: Philip Roth? The Pulitzer Prize winner? If this were anyone else, we simply wouldn’t be talking about something so banal. Roth challenges us; moves us through the contradictions and absurdities of the human animal. He does not sink to the level of popcorn storytelling. Or at least I didn’t think he did.