Just Folks

Michael Wood

  • The Plot against America by Philip Roth
    Cape, 391 pp, £16.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 224 07453 9

‘Because what’s history?’ a character asks rhetorically in Philip Roth’s astonishing new novel. ‘History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue.’ And is history also what people are afraid of, even on Summit Avenue? In a material sense it can’t be, since we fear, by definition, what hasn’t happened yet. If it had happened, to adapt a line of Kafka’s about belief in progress, it wouldn’t be an object of fear, it would be a source of experience. Yet feelings obviously have their history, and it would be a very thin account of the world that left them out. ‘Fear presides over these memories,’ The Plot against America begins, ‘a perpetual fear.’ But over which memories? Those situated in an imagined America or in a real one? Or in both?

In recent years, Philip Roth (or his publisher) has taken to grouping most of his novels according to their visible narrator. There are ‘Kepesh books’ (The Breast, The Professor of Desire, The Dying Animal), ‘Zuckerman books’ (eight of them, the latest being American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain) and ‘Roth books’ (The Facts, Deception, Patrimony, Operation Shylock and the new novel). There are also ‘other books’, such as Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, Our Gang and Sabbath’s Theater. We probably shouldn’t make too much of this taxonomy, but we shouldn’t miss the separation of enterprises, either, or the sense of an ongoing work built out of specifiable pieces.

‘I have always used the past,’ Roth writes in the letter to his character Nathan Zuckerman which forms a preface to The Facts, ‘as the basis for transformation, for, among other things, a kind of intricate explanation to myself of my world.’ Zuckerman, predictably enough, doesn’t like the idea that he might not be needed, and strikes back forcefully. Roth as Roth makes the past too bland, Zuckerman says. Where are the struggles? ‘Because if there isn’t a struggle, then it just doesn’t seem like Philip Roth to me. It could be anybody, almost.’ Roth obviously agrees, at least part (eight novels) of the time. ‘I am your permission,’ Zuckerman says, ‘your indiscretion, the key to disclosure.’

It’s tempting to think of Zuckerman as Roth acting out, and of Kepesh as Roth streamlined to his sexual anxiety. The Roth books would be less antic and less obsessive (but still pretty intricate) versions of the explanation of the world. The temptation doesn’t have to be resisted entirely, but the simplification is finally too neat and fussy. Roth is antic enough in Operation Shylock, and Zuckerman doesn’t play the central role in any of the recent books attached to his name. And who is Alexander Portnoy? Or Mickey Sabbath? At this point we need to remember that Roth’s project is an explanation to himself, not of himself; and an explanation of his world, not his person. What we get in the different sets of novels are not variable confessions but different worlds, and different instruments of understanding.

David Kepesh in The Dying Animal offers a strong sidelight on Roth in The Plot against America, a comic view of liberty and nation which darkens and widens in the new novel. Kepesh, divorced and determined never to make the mistake of marriage again, takes true American emancipation to mean the freedom of the guiltless sexual fling, and preaches to his unhappily married son. The ‘key documents’ of the country, Kepesh says, are all about ‘guaranteeing individual liberty’:

It would be another matter if you were living in Nazi-occupied Europe or in Communist-dominated Europe or in Mao Zedong’s China. There they manufacture the misery for you; you don’t have to take a single wrong step in order never to want to get up in the morning. But here, free of totalitarianism, a man like you has to provide himself his own misery.

It would be another matter if you were living in the world of The Plot against America. It is another matter. Politics for the informed but self-absorbed Kepesh is a way of talking about the arrangements of his private life. He is funny, and of course he has a point about sexual freedom. There is a difference between responsible behaviour and the endless, pointless provision of misery for oneself. But in a Roth novel Kepesh would look narrow as well as funny. Politics for Roth is what makes private life possible. It is, ideally, the prevention of misery; and it is, in practice, all too often the manufacture of misery even in nominally free countries. In The Plot against America you don’t have to take a single wrong step to find yourself subtly and then not so subtly persecuted.

This book was a runaway bestseller in the US even before it was published: an unusual occurrence for an untopical novel, even one written by someone of Roth’s standing and popularity. But surely the novel is topical; isn’t that what the title says? Well, this is, perhaps, what people have taken the title to mean. Two current plots against America spring immediately to mind. There is the global plot of al-Qaida against the evils of capitalism, substantively and symbolically centred in the US – the war on terror is a war against the elusive authors of this plot. And there is, settling down now as a major fear of many Americans, the plot of the Bush administration to abolish many civil liberties and concentrate autocratic powers in the hands of the president. ‘The Congress lacks authority,’ a recent analysis from the Office of Legal Counsel states, ‘to set the terms and conditions under which the president may exercise his authority as commander-in-chief to control the conduct of operations during a war.’ I take this quotation from an article in Daedalus by Sanford Levinson, who associates this not entirely new American practice with the political theories of Carl Schmitt, a rather sinister connection. ‘A normal situation has to be created, and sovereign is he who definitively decides whether this normal state actually obtains.’ This is Schmitt, cited by Levinson. The war on terror, as a doctrine rather than an empty slogan, is the creation either of a perpetually abnormal condition where emergency powers are always needed, or of a new norm where the president calls all the shots that Congress used to call.

But the plot in the novel is neither of these, although there are times when it looks like the second. ‘If there is a plot being hatched by anti-democratic forces in America,’ Roosevelt says in this book (but not in history), ‘let those who would dare in secret to conspire against our freedom understand that Americans will not . . . surrender the guarantees of liberty framed for us . . . in the Constitution of the United States.’ The plot in the novel is not against America as an imperial nation or America as the land of liberty, but against America as an increasingly battered utopia of tolerance, an always threatened and never fully accomplished vision of shelter and respect for all. The perspective is that of a Jewish child and his family, the historical Roths transplanted into a parallel time, and where Roth’s fiction often tests American Jews by the standard of their various accommodations with their country, here he tests America by its projected treatment of the Jews. He suggests that liberal Jews may be truer Americans, more faithful to old ideas of tolerance than many gentiles have managed to be; and without denying the attraction of this idea he underlines its fragility by putting it into a child’s voice, where national dreams and infant fears are intertwined. He even describes the intertwining as a ‘childhood ailment’, and the child mourns the loss of the ‘peacetime illusion of an eternal, unhounded now’. ‘Our incomparable American childhood was ended . . . never would I be able to revive that unfazed sense of security first fostered in a little child by a big, protective republic and his ferociously responsible parents.’

America, for the seven-year-old Philip Roth of the start of the book (and, it turns out, for a large number of not quite awake Americans on 11 September 2001), was a synonym for safety: a ‘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’. What robs the boy of this endowment is not a terrorist attack but an election, and behind the election – behind the whole book in many ways – are a few sentences from a speech which the historical Charles Lindbergh gave to an America First Committee rally in 1941, offering his reasons for opposing those groups (‘the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration’) who were in favour of joining the European war. Lindbergh, not incidentally, had received the Service Cross of the Golden Eagle, in Berlin in 1938. He said he did not condone ‘the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany’, but was concerned about the ‘danger to this country’ represented by Jewish ‘ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government’. He went on to identify both the British and the Jews as ‘races’ which he admired, but insisted that ‘they’ had interests manifestly different from ‘ours’. Roth’s subject is what it means for some (devoted) Americans to be picked out as aliens.

‘I wonder,’ Roth writes in the second sentence of this book, ‘if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.’ He is not really wondering and the ifs are very different from each other. He is the offspring of Jews, although this seems faintly different from being Jewish, and he was afraid. But was he afraid only in the imagined world where Lindbergh was president, or afraid in the other one too? If he was afraid in the historical world, was this because he was the offspring of Jews? What was he afraid of, and was he right to be afraid? The book answers all these questions by analogy, with instances from the alternative America of the novel.

The counter-history is beautifully, quietly told, starting with the middle ‘if’ in the sentence I have just quoted and continuing through casual notations of key events: ‘In June 1941, just six months after Lindbergh’s inauguration’: ‘The November election hadn’t even been close. Lindbergh got 57 per cent of the popular vote and, in an electoral sweep, carried 46 states.’ Soon after the inauguration, Lindbergh meets Hitler in Iceland and signs ‘“an understanding” guaranteeing peaceful relations between Germany and the United States’. Ten days later he signs a similar understanding with Japan. America is not going to fight a war it regards as none of its business, and at home Lindbergh can devote himself to diminishing some of that noxious Jewish influence in media and government. He decides to start with the children, and under the auspices of his newly formed (and brilliantly named) Office of American Absorption, sets up a programme called Just Folks. This programme – Roth is at his satirical best here – takes Jewish children from cities and has them spend a summer in the American heartland, getting to know hay and farm animals and eating quantities of ‘bacon, ham, pork chops and sausage’. This wouldn’t be a Roth novel if the OAA didn’t come to be directed by one of his ineffable rabbis, in this case the fluent and imposing Lionel Bengelsdorf, the arch-collaborator, apparently persuaded by his own rhetoric. For Bengelsdorf there is no resemblance between Lindbergh’s programmes and what is happening in Germany. ‘The Nuremberg Laws deprived Jews of their civil rights and did everything to exclude them from membership in their nation. What I have encouraged President Lindbergh to do is to initiate programmes inviting Jews to enter as far into the national life as they like.’ Enter gentile national life, he means, and disappear into it.

This is certainly a mildish form of persecution, but it doesn’t stay mild. Jews are relocated from city to country, and the sardonically entitled Good Neighbor Project introduces ‘non-Jewish residents into predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods’. When the pro-war journalist Walter Winchell decides in 1942 to run for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, race riots unfurl in Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and St Louis, ‘the century’s worst anti-semitic rioting outside Nazi Germany’. Winchell is assassinated in Kentucky, Lindbergh disappears, and the Japanese invade Pearl Harbor – a year late, according to the historical calendar. At this point the novel’s history rejoins our own, and the fictional Philip Roth begins to live his author’s life. Or begins again, since he was in many respects also living it under Lindbergh. A postscript reminds us that the book ‘is a work of fiction’, and provides some documentation ‘for readers interested in tracking where historical fact ends and historical imagining begins’. It’s good to be reminded that Lindbergh was never a candidate for the presidency, that Roosevelt won a third term of office in 1940, and that Walter Winchell died peacefully in obscurity in 1972. The America First Committee was disbanded at the end of 1941, after Pearl Harbor, and not long after Lindbergh gave the speech I’ve quoted.

I called the book ‘astonishing’, but what astonishes is not this wild counter-history – it is presented too plausibly for that – or any fireworks in the prose, which is uncommonly sober, though always elegant. What’s astonishing is the way Roth puts together the stories of the shaken Jewish family and an America that can’t see what’s happening to it, that isn’t shaken enough. ‘They live in a dream,’ Philip’s father says, ‘and we live in a nightmare.’ Mr and Mrs Roth and their two boys take a trip to Washington in the early days of Lindbergh’s presidency. They are turned out of their hotel, and yelled at by anti-semitic bullies, but their American optimism survives – for a while. Philip’s older brother, Sandy, takes part in the Just Folks programme and has a wonderful time in Kentucky, and Philip notes how far his sibling has ‘spun out of the family orbit merely by making the ordinary American’s adjustment to the new administration’. Cousin Alvin joins the Canadian army and loses a leg in France, but once he has returned he has no protest or principle left in him, only anger. Anger at what? The burly Canadian nurse who brings him back has the answer: ‘At what people get angry at – at how things turn out.’ Alvin joins a gang of Jewish mobsters in Philadelphia. Meanwhile Aunt Evelyn, Mrs Roth’s sister, marries Rabbi Bengelsdorf, and receives a letter from Lindbergh on the occasion. She is very happy to be invited to the White House when Ribbentrop comes to visit. Mr Roth leaves his job with Metropolitan Life Insurance rather than be transferred to Kentucky. Philip tries to run away from his collapsing world, and is kicked in the head by a horse – and, worse still, saved by a boy he can’t stand. Alvin and Philip’s father have a murderous quarrel, broken up by a friendly, newly settled Italian American neighbour, and Philip, thinking of how the fight could have ended, draws a grim conclusion: ‘The anti-semites were about to be abetted in their exhilarating solution to America’s worst problem by our taking up the cudgels and hysterically destroying ourselves.’ What appears to be a pogrom in Newark turns out to be a battle between the city police and an amateur Jewish police force composed of local thugs, ‘the Jews’ very own deviants’, as young Philip puts it, sounding very much like his older self. When three Jews get killed in the skirmishing, ‘it wasn’t necessarily because they were Jews’ (‘though it didn’t hurt,’ Philip’s Uncle Monty adds). That ‘necessarily’, along with Uncle Monty’s joke, is a way of hanging onto even a groundless fear – just in case.

The generally subdued prose doesn’t preclude fine set-pieces: such as the sequence in which Philip joins his friend Earl Axman in following Christians around the streets of Newark, the sheer idea of the lives of these exotics providing a thrill; or the phone call Mrs Roth makes to a relocated family in Kentucky, anxious to know their reaction to Winchell’s death. She gets the son – the mother is still out – and both are baffled by the niceties of the unfamiliar and expensive long-distance call. Mrs Roth is calling to talk about an assassination, the boy wants to talk about the Fig Newtons he is eating and about having no friends at school. He asks if Philip is going to visit him, and says he doesn’t have anybody to invite to his birthday party next week. Mrs Roth says: ‘Seldon, it’s hard for everyone. It’s hard for everyone now. Goodbye, Seldon.’ She puts down the phone and sobs, a sign for Philip that even his indomitable mother is coming apart. There are extraordinary sentences in the novel, too, rich in unhappy experience and sustained irony: ‘She was every inch the child of overbearing parents’; ‘Bullies love to summarise. The redundant upbraiding summary – nothing to equal it outside the old-fashioned flogging.’ Philip’s father is said to be ‘helplessly bonded to his better instincts and their excessive demands’.

When this same inordinately decent man quarrels so terribly with Alvin, the narrator comments: ‘Before that night, I’d had no idea my father was so well suited for wreaking havoc or equipped to make that lightning-quick transformation from sanity to lunacy that is indispensable in enacting the unbridled urge to destroy.’ ‘Well-suited’, ‘indispensable’ are mock-polite words which seem to endorse or at least accept the very horror that is wrecking normality. A neighbour is said to speak ‘without bitterness, without sadness, merely demonstrating the soft, defensive joviality of someone still hanging on for no seeming reason’. ‘Joviality’: an extraordinary touch.

But what’s astonishing is still the quiet domesticity of the story and its telling. The small scale of these lives almost allows us to miss – and this is the point – the large scale of the threat. History is not only what happens to everybody, and not only the narrative of our fear; it is also seen from another angle, the way we tame our surprises. America is bowled over by Lindbergh’s landslide victory, but ‘by the day after . . . everybody seemed to understand everything.’ And what is studied in schools, Roth says, is ‘harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.’ For this very reason, The Plot against America refuses the epic note and proportion.

But who are these Jews who are thought to interfere with Lindbergh’s idea of America, and who themselves see dispersal and diffusion as a form of death? Responding to a questionnaire put out by Commentary in 1961, Roth said: ‘Small matters aside – food preferences, a certain syntax, certain jokes – it is difficult for me to distinguish a Jewish style of life in our country that is significantly separate and distinct from the American style of life.’ Philip’s father in the novel would insist that having a Jewish style of life, distinguishable or not, was one way of being a loyal American. When his wife says, ‘We only think we’re Americans,’ he replies: ‘They think we only think we’re Americans. It is not up for discussion, Bess.’ And Roth himself has an eloquent paragraph, a long, late gloss on his response to the questionnaire, in which the Jews of Newark and elsewhere represent the right of people to go on being who they think they are:

Their being Jews didn’t issue from the rabbinate or the synagogue or from their few formal religious practices . . . Their being Jews didn’t even issue from on high . . . These were Jews who needed no large terms of reference, no profession of faith or doctrinal creed, in order to be Jews, and they certainly needed no other language – they had one, their native tongue . . . Neither was their being Jews a mishap or a misfortune or an achievement . . . What they were was what they couldn’t get rid of – what they couldn’t even begin to want to get rid of. Their being Jews issued from their being themselves, as did their being American. It was as it was, in the nature of things, as fundamental as having arteries and veins, and they never manifested the slightest desire to change it or deny it, regardless of the consequences.

The context is the relocation of Mr Roth’s colleagues in the insurance company, and his own stubborn insistence on staying where he is. The situation of the ‘offspring’ of these Jews is no doubt less fixed historically, and what is admirable about this paragraph is its detailed respect and its refusal of nostalgia. The plot against America is a plot against these Americans. And against thousands of other Americans, who are like these Jews because they are different – different from the Jews and different from each other. The pursuit of happiness may be a chimera, and no doubt we all have vices and prejudices and hankerings we should shed. But the right not to be forced to get rid of what we can’t even begin to want to get rid of should surely be available to everyone except psychopaths.