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.