Plot Against America

Philip Roth experiments with reality.

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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.