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October 10, 2004

The Essay Beatrice Readers Demanded to See!

by Ron Hogan

One of the more popular search terms people have used here in the last week is "Philip Roth," but since I haven't actually read The Plot Against America yet, I really haven't had that much to say. Still, the reviews and a Newsday profile have made me just as curious as I'm sure they've made you, so let's take a look at those; it won't be as good, but maybe it'll be as entertaining.

Since I'm usually interested in what Daniel Handler has to say about modern fiction, I was glad to see his take in the San Francisco Chronicle, even though the opening pun "elder statesmensch" is a bit painful. Handler does a great job of arguing for Roth's complete output before getting to the latest book, "Roth's most powerful novel to date." I'm glad, too, that he refers to it as "an exercise in speculative history," rather than, say, "a fable of an alternate universe" like Paul Berman in last week's NYTBR. I've known since the buzz began that a lot of critics would be going out of their way to explain how Philip Roth's alternate history novel isn't science fiction--Berman does it by positioning Roth in a 'tradition' of Jack London, Nathanael West, and Sinclair Lewis--and Roth himself professes, " I had no literary models for reimagining the historical past," which actually isn't that surprising as I don't imagine Roth's read much science fiction in his adult life. Michael Gorra in the Times Literary Supplement goes a step further: "The Plot Against America offers a plausible description of a world that never was. It may not be one of Roth’s four or five best books. But nobody else would even have tried it..." Really? How about The Man in the High Castle? How about...oh, never mind. Anyway, I'm thrilled that Handler came as close to calling the novel "science fiction" as he could without actually using the forbidden words.

That said, though, Handler ("reading this novel now feels inescapably allegorical") and Berman ("I think that in composing his novel, Roth has simply run his eye across the modern horizon, and gathered in the sights, and rearranged them in a 1940's kaleidoscope") and Gorra ("it is impossible to read this book... without America’s current condition in mind") fall into an interpretive trap against which Roth himself has warned:

Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman a clef to the present moment in America. That would be a mistake. I set out to do exactly what I've done: reconstruct the years 1940-42 as they might have been if Lindbergh, instead of Roosevelt, had been elected president in the 1940 election. I am not pretending to be interested in those two years -- I am interested in those two years. They were turbulent in America because they were catastrophic in Europe. My every imaginative effort was directed toward making the effect of that reality as strong as I could, and not so as to illuminate the present through the past but to illuminate the past through the past. I wanted my family to be up against it precisely as they would have been up against it had history turned out as I've skewed it in this book and they were overpowered by the forces I have arrayed against them. Forces arrayed against them then, not now.

Of course, they aren't alone in this rush to relevance--Joan Acocella noted in her New Yorker review--which you really shouldn't read unless you want to know the ending of the novel beforehand--that "to find the actions of one’s government both comical and mortally frightening is an experience that Gentiles can share, especially at the present moment, which may have figured as heavily as the Second World War in the genesis of Roth’s tale." Though at least she says "may have." As you've no doubt inferred, I've taken Roth's side on this issue, and when I do get around to reading The Plot Against America, I intend to read it with Roth's stated agenda in mind. It can be useful to approach history (and, by extension, alternative history) as a subject that can be instructive to the present moment, but I wonder if it's not more honest, perhaps, to study history not to discover how people in the past were like us but to discover what they were like, not how their experiences were like ours but what they experienced.

Not everybody likes the novel, mind you. Michiko Kakutani calls The Plot Against America "provocative but lumpy," and she finds the alternative history aspects utterly unconvincing, "a political landscape that remains cartoony in the extreme." If Roth cares about what Kakutani thinks, he can count himself lucky; at least she didn't call his book "shockingly tasteless and deeply offensive" as she did Stephen Fry's Making History, although that's actually more explicitly sci-fi, since it hinges on time travel.

Entertainment Weekly also took points off, awarding Roth merely a B- for a "fatally underimagined" and "unconvincing fantasy that falls far short of his finest work." Jennifer Reese also suggests that "to turn a huge chunk of America into proto-Nazis required more time, effort, and artistry than Roth put into his fleeting, hammy snapshots." I'd imagine a lot of African-Americans whose families remember, say, Strom Thurmond's presidential run don't share her and Kakutani's assessment of the implausibility of "it happening here," to paraphrase Lewis. Heck, didn't either of them see that classic ABC afterschool special, The Wave?

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