Category Archives: Philip Roth

The Plot Against America

As someone who was enthralled by the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (1933-2018) seemed like something I ought to put on my reading list. American Pastoral was exceptional, so I was willing to spend some more time this year with Roth before moving on to someone else. I picked up a copy of The Communist Manifesto on Audible before getting started, spent a couple hours with Karl Marx, and then started in to this alternative history “what-if” novel.

I’ll start by saying that, although I’m glad to have crossed off the Communist Manifesto from my to-read list, it was completely unnecessary for me to have read for The Plot Against America. For those of you whom do not recognize this title, here is what it is about: Famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh is elected president of the United States of America in 1940 after his world-famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Though he does not outwardly support the Hitler’s regime in Germany, Lindbergh is a suspected Nazi. His anti-Semite views as a man in supreme political authority drive the themes and plot of The Plot Against America in contrast to a fractured Jewish family.

What’s real: Lindbergh was an outspoken racist. He was against the United States involvement in World War II. He did fly to Germany to receive a medal in person from the commander of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, on behalf of Hitler. Charles was skyrocketed to fame when news of his successful flight hit the media, after which that admiration turned to robust sympathy in 1931 when his 20-month old son was nabbed from the Lindbergh family home and subsequently found murdered.

Everyone knew who Charles A. Lindbergh was, and from a standpoint of extreme popularity, I daresay it was possible that he could have won the presidency over Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, that’s the not real part.

The Plot Against America is about fear. The Lindbergh in the novel never speaks outright against the Jews. As they are announced to the populace, changes that are effected by his presidency are meant for the good of America as a whole though they are ridiculed by the elders of the Jewish faith. The younger individuals of the family believe in Lindbergh (to various degrees) and are at odds with their parents. What develops is the looming question of whether the reader is justified in suspecting conspiracy theories and unspoken motives.

I finished this novel a week ago and have been sitting with the idea of whether to write about it or not. I felt that the plot was oversimplified and lacked any real depth. It briefly brought to mind when George W. Bush became president in 2001, supported by the claim that politics is a religious vocation. I remember the fallout expressed by those religions that did not coincide with his, but also a certain kind of terror to think that the lines of church and state would be further blurred. Roth was afraid that the acceptance of Jews in the United States was conditional and precarious. Is that not true of any non-Christian faith?

To me, The Plot Against America (2004) lacked the insidiousness that was so beautiful (meaning so remarkably creepy and enthusiastically well done) in American Pastoral (1997). I noticed while doing some research though that HBO picked The Plot Against America up and made it into a series featuring John Turturro. Season one aired in 2020 and maybe the expertise of those behind it gave it the meat I felt was missing.

What more did I want, you might wonder?

Let’s jump authors for a moment and consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Here you have a cringe worthy protagonist that does not shy away from the thoughts and rationalizations that (for me) provoked a visceral reaction. I knew what Humbert was thinking and in knowing how his thoughts seemed perfectly normal to him, my emotional response to him had real weight. In The Plot Against America, Lindbergh wasn’t scary. He more of a placeholder than a person, and so it was difficult to attribute feelings towards him at all. The situation was disagreeable, but did not strike me as tragic. I started to care when a particular character died over halfway into the story and then it seemed like the novel lost momentum again.

If you haven’t read Philip Roth before, I wouldn’t judge him off of this book. I still have The Human Stain on my reading list, though it is the last of Roth I have in mind for now. Maybe it is because I’m reading Solzhenitsyn’s non-fiction work The Gulag Archipelago at the same time that the severity of experiences in The Plot Against America seems so trite. Or, maybe I shouldn’t start out with the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by an author if I intend to read more than just one of their repertoire.

American Pastoral

Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with American Pastoral in 1998. Finalists for that year were Underworld by Don Delillo and Bear and His Daughter: Stories by Robert Stone. This novel is part of what is considered The American Trilogy, a collection of books by the same author that includes I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. I started here with the intention to skip over to The Human Stain once I revisit Roth. It does not seem to matter if you read them in order or not.

The main character was based on a real person, Seymour “Swede” Masin, a Jewish athlete of admired repute. I’m not a sports person and had no previous knowledge of Masin, though I feel I’ve met him (in a way) after having spent 432 pages getting to know “Swede” Levov, protagonist. Imagine a good Jewish boy that grew up to be a stand-up, attractive adult. Everyone likes him. He marries a former beauty queen and they have a beautiful baby girl. It all starts out to be a picturesque vision of the quintessential American dream, set in New Jersey.

This novel is on the Goodreads most difficult novels list, and here’s why I think that is: Everything goes horrendously wrong. This good guy, who never hurt anyone in his life and wouldn’t bear to even risk insulting anyone has his internal fortitude dashed to pieces in a hail of discontent. His daughter, Merry, becomes a radical political activist adept at setting off bombs. There is intentional death that occurs by her hand and no substantial explanation for what caused her to tip. I finished my first reading thinking there was an unnamed disease present whose side-effects were anger, confusion, and despair. (Fittingly, the protagonist dies of prostate cancer, so lets enjoy the social commentary there. Did he die of cancer, or was he susceptible to cancer because he was already so weakened by what his life had become?)

The fiction in this novel didn’t seem like fiction, leaving me with a sense that the possibility of a perfect life is remote. If this guy can have his world pulled out from under him, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

Most of American Pastoral is the inner dialogue of the Swede, though there is a definite plot which drives this character along to his ultimate demise. The novel touches on the intricacies of the Levov’s relationship with his daughter, his wife, his brother, his community, and himself. If you like to listen, the audio version narrated by Ron Silver is absolutely exceptional. Silver won an Audie Award for Best Solo by a Male for his work in the 1998 release.

American Pastoral is on my favorite novels list. I liked that despite the seeming flawlessness of the characters’ younger lives, the author shows us how the white on their proverbial picket fence is simply an outer shell of paint. Beneath the veneer of whom they seem to be are real problems, motives, challenges, and depth. Perhaps I side with Merry insofar as I felt gratified by all the knots and dings these people carried under the surface.

I enjoyed the complexity of this novel. Even if you remove the trigger to the Swede’s downfall and omit the part of the story which is Merry’s terrorist acts, there still remains a realistic characterization of how we deal with the other people in our lives. What is it to be a parent? A husband? (And for some of us, a Jew?) How far can we expect our individual influence to reach as members of a family or community? Can we prevent chaos from seeping into our lives, or is entropy unavoidable?

If you have a penchant for unanswerable questions and family dysfunction with a touch of nihilism, then this book might interest you as well. Those triggered by intense family trauma should probably avoid it. Nevertheless I thought it was an excellent book that set a new bar on what I like to see in well developed characters struggling through an impossible situation.