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.

Distorting What We Know

Aside from its literary merits, however, what distinguishes Roth's book is how much--and how craftily--it mirrors contemporary events. But to make matters more interesting, Roth employs a funhouse mirror. We recognize parallels between Roth's counterfactual history and current events, but they're distorted; the parallels are skewed.

For Philip, Lindbergh's presidency "assaulted as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world." These words are sure to resonate with every post-9/11 American. Next, we're introduced to a president who is "misleading the country with promises of peace while secretly agitating and planning for our entry intro the armed struggle." This too sounds strangely familiar. But wait. The president Roth is referring to is FDR, the "good guy," if you will. When a few pages later, Lindbergh lands his own plane and arrives at a public appearance in his flying gear awakening "a surge of redemptive excitement," matters are confused even more. George W. Bush was criticized for being an interventionist, FDR for the opposite; yet it's Roth's Lindbergh who Bush parallels in this scene.

Then there's the issue of anti-Semitism. The Plot Against America could be read as a warning to American Jews, a "This can happened here," a comment on the perceived rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and abroad. But this is Philip Roth, a life-long agitator of the Jewish establishment, not its PR director.

The Plot Against America seems to be Philip Roth's most political work. But what exactly is its politics?

A Half-Imaginary Existence

If the textual barriers to resolving this question weren't enough, there are external barriers as well. For decades Roth has both dared us to ask about the relationship between fact and fiction and warned us about trying to extract direct lessons from literature. In an interview Roth asserted that, "What you know from Flaubert or Beckett or Dostoyevsky is never a great deal more than you knew before about adultery or loneliness or murder--what you know is Madame Bovary, Molloy,and Crime and Punishment."

By this logic, all we can learn from The Plot Against America is The Plot Against America. The novel should only reference itself.

Yet by definition, a counterfactual narrative reaches beyond itself. It presumes that we know what actually occurred in the past. Additionally, The Plot Against America contains a 25-page postscript with biographical information about the historical figures mentioned in the book.

So what is Philip Roth up to? Aside from its literary genius, The Plot Against America is propelled by the excitement of this unanswerable question.

Twenty years ago, Philip Roth remarked that making "fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that's it."

Really, Mr. Roth, the pleasure is all ours. 

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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.