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The Plot Against America
Philip Roth
Vintage, 400 pages

The Plot Against America
Philip Roth
Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933. He grew up in the city's lower-middle-class section of Weequahic and was educated in Newark public schools. He later attended Bucknell University, where he received his B.A., and the University of Chicago, where he completed his M. A. and taught English. Afterwards, at both Iowa and Princeton, he taught creative writing, and for many years he taught comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He retired from teaching in 1992.

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A review by Jeff VanderMeer

As with most novels by Philip Roth, The Plot Against America has many layers. It is not only a keenly observed account of a boy growing up in a Jewish-American New Jersey community in the 40s but also a chilling step-by-step clinic on how a democracy can descend into facism; a carefully thought-out alternate history novel in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in his bid for a third term; and, because of the ways in which civil liberties in this country have been curtailed since the events of 9-11, a sobering harbinger of the future of all American citizens should the federal government fall into the hands of the unscrupulous.

Roth has an uncanny ability to include all of these layers without falling into the trap of lecturing the reader. The decision to tell the story from the viewpoint of the young Roth (for, as is common for Roth, he inserts himself into the text, this time ostensibly as the narrator) proves largely responsible for the effortless way in which historical and personal events intertwine in the plot. The boy's day-to-day concerns -- getting along with his brothers, issues at school, etc. -- make the ominous historical events gathering in the distance all that more sinister, if, at first, remote.

Lindbergh's ascension to the presidency on a platform of neutrality toward Hitler's Germany -- and, indeed, as it turns out, open friendship -- becomes the first step in a scheme meant to culminate in a Final Solution on U.S. soil. A program called Just Folks brainwashes Jewish youth by sending them off to rural farm locations on the pretense of friendly assimilation, but, in fact, serves to alienate young Jews from their parents and from their culture. Another government program relocates Jewish families working for insurance companies and other businesses with branch offices -- usually to isolated areas of the country -- in an effort to break up large concentrations of Jewish families, and thereby dilute their political, social, and economic power.

Such is Roth's genius that the almost gentle and matter-of-fact reasonable explanations given for both programs show how evil can be masked by the right terminology and syntax -- how a government can use Orwellian doublespeak to get its citizenry to accept a war upon its own ranks. These sections of the novel send a shiver up the spine because Roth reveals just how easily the reality of our country as we imagine it -- the home of liberty and freedom -- could be overturned by those with a will to power and a completely different dream; how easily precisely because we trust in that dream of the reality of our country.

Roth's two brothers (in the novel), Alvin and Sandy, provide additional drama, with Alvin enlisting in the Canadian army to fight Hitler and Sandy enlisting in the Just Folks program, and becoming one of Lindbergh's apologists. One of the most amusing and true transformations in the novel involves Sandy, in that once he discovers girls his unwavering devotion to Lindbergh -- as much, as Roth portrays it, a teenage rebellion against his parents as a principled political stand -- flags, replaced by the more epic and enduring quest of teenagers everywhere...

In much the same way as the historical and political elements of Roth's novel chill and startle, the transformations of his characters surprise and delight. The entire Roth family becomes transformed, both from within and without, forced by the sudden weight of history to adapt to shifting situations, and as a natural expression of growing old, of outgrowing youth. A father once resolute who finds he must bend or suffer the destruction of his family. A resourceful mother who must stifle her own ambitions to fend off emergency. And the young Roth himself, who, in witnessing what happens all around him and to him, becomes an adult.

It is a measure of how much Roth loves the world -- and those seemingly mundane details and moments that, when gathered, considered, and set against the backdrop of history, make for an extraordinary life -- that a novel as political, and as driven by a sense of injustice and clear reflection on the current state of our lives in this Republic, can feel so effortless and so personal. This is science fiction so natural that it doesn't seem like science fiction.

(This review first appeared in the Shomrei Torah Bulletin.)

Copyright © 2005 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others.

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