Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Dec. 24, 2004
The Plot Against Americaby Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 400 pp., $26
A third of the way through Philip Roth's new novel, the reader is introduced to Earl Waxman, a fast-talking troublemaker whose recurring exhortation, "Now let's do something awful," sounds like it could be the phrase hanging in Roth's writing room for the past 50 years, hovering over the typewriter like a memento mori: Remember your role, it says. From the masturbatory excesses of Alexander Portnoy to the outsized self-obsession of Mickey Sabbath, Roth's greatest characters and in turn his books have always walked a line between manic humor and paralyzing tragedy. A technical master, Roth can turn his prose on a dime, shifting the tone of a passage not only for narrative purposes, but more importantly, to communicate the wealth of emotional contradictions and psychological outbursts that constitute the human experience.
As Roth has matured as a writer, he has stretched his considerable skills beyond stories about the unpredictability and inevitability of personal catastrophe to address the intrusions of actual historical tragedy into imagined lives. Now, he has taken the next step: reimagining history itself. The Plot Against America is a harrowing look at American history if Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh had won the presidential election of 1940 instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt, quickly instituting a strict isolationist policy abroad and slowly, subtly implementing racist social codes here at home. It's a detailed account of America's descent into institutionalized religious bigotry and ethnic agitation and a personal look at the effect of this descent on the Roth family and their neighbors in the Jewish ghetto of Newark, N.J.
It's a terrifying book, charting the ever-darkening course of a country that's willing to betray its most democratic ideals to drink deep of the intoxicant of anti-Semitism, the "universal remedy" (as Roth calls it) for so much of the world throughout so much of its history. The writing and the ideas here are unimpeachable, and one could hardly question the audacity of the premise, but there is something vital missing: While daring to confront this bleakest of subjects, Roth has abandoned the black-comic heart that has always beat in his work, pumping real human blood into his words for years and setting him apart as a writer of contemporary fiction.
Instead, Roth, here, seems content with narrative, with setting events in motion and letting the story tell itself, leaving relatively unadorned the political machinations and personal travesties of the time. There's no doubt the book is virtuosic in its technique, its research, and its intellect, but it won't cut glass. Because he is writing from the point of view of a child, Roth is unobtrusive, more observant than critical, and unwilling (or unable) to dwell on the devastating connections between human action and worldly consequence, connections that have made his past books so brutal and beautiful to read. Roth has chosen sobriety over vitality he's constructed a towering gallows but forgotten his gallows humor. And, for the first time in my experience reading him, the author seems beholden to his subject, too conscious of the solemnity of the occasion to allow his ironies and impertinence to breathe.
Another publication pointed out that this book might be Roth's mea culpa for years of questionable characterizations and criticisms of his people, his late-life apology for Portnoy's Complaint. I have a hard time believing that the man who loosed Sabbath's Theater on the world is capable of apologizing for anything, but I acknowledge the shift in his tone. It could be he's growing contemplative in his later years, a reasonable reaction for any man, but an unfortunate one for a writer of Roth's antagonistic spirit. I, for one, would be disappointed to read a resigned and respectable Philip Roth. No, I prefer the true Roth, that writer of recurring controversy who made his name by inventing lives of intense, conflicted, confused catharsis with an energy and anger rarely seen in American literature. Let's pray now for something awful.