The terror of the unforeseen

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

October 11 2004 / New Statesman

Late style, Edward Said wrote in an essay published shortly before his death, “has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without realising the contradictions between them”. Philip Roth’s new novel, a counter-factual satire in which the pioneering aviator Charles A Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and begins to turn America, as an ally of Nazi Germany and Japan, into a quasi-fascist state, is an exercise in disenchantment and pleasure. In style and tone, it is recognisably the work of a novelist entering the final period of his writing career, peering back through the smoke of a long, fractious but absolutely dedicated life at the person he once was. The novel is unashamedly nostalgic—and this is the pleasure of it, for both writer and reader.

Roth, who is 71, returns once more to the tough mercantile neighbourhood of his childhood in Newark, New Jersey. This time we follow him directly into the cramped family home as, in an act of imaginative reclamation, he introduces us to his father, Herman, an insurance agent for Metropolitan Life, his resilient mother, Bess, and his elder brother, Sandy. The domestic detail of Roth’s own lower-middle-class, war-shadowed childhood is rendered exactly in clear, plain prose. But the historical circumstances are different—and this is the true disenchantment of the novel because, as the narrator (the young Philip Roth) tells us at the outset, a “perpetual fear” presides over these memoirs. That fear is anti-Semitism, and the precariousness of life for a minority people persecuted and menaced by their own government.

If Roth’s recent and great trilogy of novels about postwar American society—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000)—as well as the novella The Dying Animal (2001), which was a kind of coda to and comment on the entire trilogy, were about anything, they were about how the individual has little control over the inexorable forces of history, and is remorselessly tethered to them. In each of the three novels an aspirant everyman, buoyant on a steady stream of American optimism and expectation, is humbled and then destroyed after becoming entangled in a net of public politics and private deceit. They are destroyed by what Roth in this new book calls the “terror of the unforeseen”: the unexpected event, the chance occurrence, the unimagined catastrophe. Only in retrospect does history appear to have shape, narrative, direction and meaning. The present as it is lived never feels like that; it feels complicated and confused, a rush of pure sensation. In truth, most of us live with a sense, even if only subconsciously, of the terror of the unforeseen, the event over which we have no control but which ineradicably alters the direction of our lives.

In The Plot Against America, the unforeseen is the election of Charles Lindbergh as president. In 1927 Lindbergh, a former airmail pilot, became the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic in his single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St Louis. He flew from New York to Paris without a radio or navigation aids, and his flight took him nearly 34 hours. In many ways, he did more than cross the Atlantic on that historic flight: he flew straight into the future and became, as J G Ballard has written, a reluctant but authentic international celebrity of our emerging consumer and entertainment culture, “the admired and welcome guest of kings, presidents and prime ministers”. For a period after that, Lindbergh had no peace: he was harried, pursued, adored. In 1932, his baby son was kidnapped; the story was a news sensation. The baby was later found dead, his body mauled by animals, in woods near the Lindbergh home. In retreat, Lindbergh moved to England, from where he travelled to Germany, thrilled by the pseudo- modernity and technological obsessions of the Nazi state. In July 1936, Lindbergh attended a lunch hosted in his honour by Hermann Goering and was thereafter an esteemed guest at the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics. “Germany,” Lindbergh wrote at the time, “is the most interesting nation in the world today, and she is attempting to find a solution for some of our most fundamental problems.” On another trip to Germany in October 1938, Lindbergh would receive a medal of commendation from Goering, “by order of der Fuhrer”.

On his return to the US in 1939, Lindbergh, a resolute Republican isolationist, campaigned against American intervention in what was after all, he said, a European war. At an America First rally in Des Moines in 1941 (Roth moves the speech to 1940), he spoke of American Jews as “other peoples”, and warned Americans not to allow the “natural passions and prejudices” of Jews to lead “our country to destruction”.

You will learn very little about the true history of Charles Lindbergh from Roth’s novel. To Roth, he is less a historical figure—the “last naive hero”, as Ballard calls him—than a convenient device, a figure through which Roth, fiddling with the facts of history, can invert the founding ideal of the United States, transforming this proud vessel of migrations and new beginnings into a kind of anti-utopia, the worst possible world for Jews. And Lindbergh is never more than an absent presence in the novel, someone heard on the radio or discussed in anxious conversation among senior family members. Yet his influence on American society is rancid and immediate: he flies to Iceland to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler, he establishes a national Office of American Absorption through which he forces Jews out of the cities and into new settlements in the Midwest and the South, and he creates a society in which pogroms and politically sponsored killings are not only possible, but desirable.

In one early scene, the best in the book, Herman Roth takes his family on a trip to Washington, DC. Anti-Semitism is already biting; the Roths, despite having pre-booked their rooms, are turned away from their hotel, because they are obviously Jews—an enraging and humiliating experience for Roth pere, but an echo, too, of how African Americans have been treated throughout American history. Meanwhile, out on the street, the young Roth boys look up into the sky to see a low-flying Lockheed Interceptor aircraft: it is their new president out on his daily solo flying mission, simultaneously a figure of fear and fascination.

The Plot Against America is, in many ways, an unsatisfactory book: not quite fiction and not quite believable. There are too many long, dull explicatory passages of historical narrative—a kind of elaborate scene-setting. It is Roth at his most benign and forgiving, of his parents, of his extended family, and of his tortured relationship with his own Jewishness. Roth the hectoring raconteur, the stand-up comedian, the tyrannical monologist is absent. Instead, the tone is one of heightened resignation—and Roth’s family and their fellow Jews, following the mysterious disappearance of President Lindbergh in an unexplained aviation accident at the end of the book, are redeemed by benevolent destiny as the natural order of things is, as in a fairy tale, restored.

What are we to make of all this? Indeed, what are we to make of the late style of Philip Roth? Before the publication of this book, so unexpected and softly reflective, one would have said that it was characterised by rage against death, a kind of willed nihilism, and the realisation that, as fallen “Swede”, the central character of American Pastoral, must discover, “the worst lesson that life can teach is that life makes no sense”. But this book is different. Sparer and less exalted in style, it is Roth’s homage to his family: his own black-and-white home movie, his Radio Days. Reading it, one thinks also of the late fictions of Saul Bellow, so elegantly reduced compared with the turbocharged exuberance of his middle years; of the pared-down austerities of late VS Naipaul or Muriel Spark. One thinks even of the late romances of Shakespeare, with their interconnecting themes of loss and separation, of reconciliation and forgiveness, and their belief in the redemptive capacity of art, a belief that Roth evidently shares as he returns to wander through the rooms of the old family home in Newark, and conjures his parents into life all over again.