Williamsburg Regional Library is the only Virginia site hosting Philip Roth’s online discussion of his new book, Indignation, on September 16. If you are interested in free tickets, please call the Adult Services desk at 259-4050.
I read Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here many years ago, so when Roth published Plot, it was natural for me to pick it up. Honestly, I hadn’t read anything by Roth since a college course that included Portnoy’s Complaint, which I admired for his ability to capture a tone not easily maintained – and, of course, the surprise ending that I’m sure was the talk of the town when the book was first published. I was (and still am) intimidated by his reputation and kept finding reasons not to go back to his work. That’s why The Plot Against America surprised me, and reminded me that authors don’t become great when they can’t write.
It is, simply put, an alternate history of the United States. Instead of Franklin Roosevelt winning re-election in 1940, Charles Lindbergh, aviation pioneer, celebrity, and vocal admirer of Adolf Hitler takes the White House and begins to implement his own solution to “the Jewish Problem.” Agreements with Germany and Japan remove international considerations from the stage, allowing Lindbergh to gradually introduce friendly-sounding legislation aimed at breaking up Jewish families and communities.
To the seven-year old Philip Roth (the adult author names his youthful protagonist for himself, and surrounds him with relatives that share names with the writer’s family), Lindbergh’s election is astonishing – he has never known any president other than Roosevelt, who is admired in the boy’s home. The shelter of home and neighborhood suddenly looks fragile as the adults around him begin to react to Lindbergh’s programs. The boy starts to see the immediate effects, including his mother taking a job to send escape money to Canada, his father losing his job, his brother signing up to work on a Kentucky tobacco farm, and his cousin going to Canada to join the fight against Germany. The reader continues the story with a growing sense of unease that, like the cumulative effects of public anti-Semitism, climaxes in the realized fear of assassinations and pogroms throughout the United States. The Roth household is affected by internal strife, but when violence does erupt in other parts of the US, the family pulls together.
The novel ends somewhat abruptly, with a sudden and convenient resolution that puts the world back on track with 20th century history as we know it. I wondered if Roth did that because the consequences of a real extermination of American Jews was too awful to contemplate or too difficult to envision in the confines of a novel; I still wonder if he did it deliberately to jar the reader back into this real world with a newfound sense of how easily tyranny and oppression can arise even in a supposedly open and tolerant society. As with American Pastoral, the reader is also left wondering what course of action would head off these events, whether an individual or group could hold off chaos long enough for people to rethink their prejudices, or whether anyone can consider themselves immune to social upheaval. By not answering those questions, Roth forces the reader to decide for himself. Perhaps not the most satisfying ending, but truly difficult problems rarely have simple solutions.