Plot Against America

Philip Roth experiments with reality.

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Originally published in the Jerusalem Post (September 29, 2004).

In an open letter to the critic Diana Trilling published in Reading Myself and Others (1975), Philip Roth enumerates the differences between himself and "Mr. Roth," the "character" who, in an essay, Trilling identifies as the author of Portnoy's Complaint. Of course, Philip Roth is the author of Portnoy's Complaint (1969), but his message is clear: the written word is a dubious medium of representation. The "Mr. Roth" of Trilling's review--a two-dimensional, reified sketch--bares no more of a direct relationship to the living breathing Philip Roth than does Alexander Portnoy. 

Literary Alter-Egos

Roth's letter was penned three and a half decades ago, but it was not the last time he challenged the distinction between author and character, between fiction and reality. In 1979's The Ghost Writer, Roth introduced us to Nathan Zuckerman, who'd serve as his alter ego in several subsequent novels. Yet while Roth and his creation share crucial biographical information--they're both Jewish writers, born in Newark, whose early works inspired criticism from Members of the Tribe--Roth insists Zuckerman is a device, not a pseudonym.

Roth upped the stakes once again with The Facts (1988), subtitled A Novelist's Autobiography. Why not just "An Autobiography"? Because Roth is aware that autobiographies are fundamentally suspect. Like a novel, an autobiography--and certainly the autobiography of a novelist--is a creative endeavor. Roth makes this point with a wink, opening The Facts with a letter addressed to none other than the fictional Nathan Zuckerman.

Nor did Roth stop there. There's Deception (1990), a dialogue between two lovers, one of whom is named Philip and who has written about a character named Zuckerman; Patrimony (1991), subtitled "A True Story"--an inside joke for anyone who has read The Facts and knows what Roth thinks about narrative truth; and Operation Shylock (1993), which features a character named Philip Roth as well as a character masquerading as Philip Roth.

Aside from testing the relationship between real and fictional characters, Roth has also challenged the relationship between alternate fictional realities. In The Counterlife (1986), Henry Zuckerman (Nathan's brother) dies during an operation in chapter one and lives through the operation in chapter two. In chapter four, it is Nathan who goes through the operation.

The Plot Against America

But with The Plot Against America (2004), Philip Roth has pushed this theme to a new level. Reference and reality are subverted at every turn. The Plot Against America is a counterfactual history that asks an eerie question: What if Charles Lindbergh had beaten Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election?

Lindbergh, of course, was an aviation hero, the first man to fly a non-stop, transatlantic solo flight. But he was also an extreme isolationist with ties to Nazi Germany. Lindbergh openly admired Hitler, and in 1938, he received a Service Cross of the German Eagle, a medallion featuring four swastikas, awarded to him by Hermann Göring. In The Plot Against America, President Lindbergh makes a pact with Hitler not to enter World War II, unleashing a wave of American anti-Semitism.

The Plot Against America is narrated by a young boy named Philip Roth. Philip lives in Newark with his brother Sandy, his father Herman, and his mother Bess. In other words, his basic history is identical to the author of the book. So who is this Philip Roth? Is he indeed the same as the author? The same as the character in The Facts? Patrimony? Operation Shylock?

By the time you've read a few pages of The Plot Against America, these questions seem almost quaint. Roth has created another blurred distinction between authorial reality and fiction, but he also ups the ante from The Counterlife. While The Counterlife references alternate fictional realities, The Plot Against America references an alternate real reality.

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Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.