the plot thickens

September 6, 2005

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a mind-bogglingly chewy work in historical fiction. Allohistory has never been a particularly useful form of historical thought, but Plot is more than just a peculiar historical experiment. It is a powerful piece of writing, and is testament to the immense good that democracy was in the world of yesterday, and in the world of today.

The Roths are a family of Jews living in Newark. They are subjected to waves of insidious social engineering redolent of the pogroms (and on an unrelated note, the ‘mixing’ policy undertaken by Singapore’s HDB), even as Charles Lindbergh (well-known aviator and infamous for his Nazi inclinations) takes control of America and surely heads it towards the far right.

The most impressive aspect of the book is, as in all of Roth’s books, that the politcal never overtakes the personal, and tension is created and marvelously sustained through the delicate intersection of the public and the private. The book may be about how America might have been taken over by Fascists (and read, rightly, as an indictment of anti-democratic means and ends) and might have succumbed to the myth of the ubermensch (and seen, rightly, as a warning against the personality cult tactics of certain regimes); it most certainly is about how a family is torn apart by external forces, how the fears of a certain young boy (the narrator, Philip Roth) – it is this which imbues the book with a fearsome immediacy. Read in this way, Plot remains relevant even today when the spectre of Nazism-Fascism looms so far in the distant past: and speaks much of what is happening in the United States at the moment, with so many opposing forces and interests threatening to force the country apart.

The convenient twist at the end of the book makes the historical line flimsy; this is a small quibble and in fact does not detract much from what the book says, or is trying to say. This is Roth at his very best, essence of Roth distilled: his humour and wit and perspicacity of all the previous books boiled down into four-hundred pages or so of gripping fiction. Roth has truly sealed his position as America’s foremost writer for this quite marvellous piece of work, which shows how politics can intrude on the simplicity of familial life, and which enthralls with the tale of how a boy who struggles to find his identity (and on a more basic note, to ensure his family’s and his own survival) can become, quite evidently, a hero of magnificent proportions, greater than any politician could ever be.


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