Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

When I was done reading The Plot Against America, my reaction was "well, okay." It wasn't a bad book, and in fact there was a lot of good writing in it and it wasn't an uninteresting plot idea, but in the end it just left me cold. I also have a reflexive dislike of authors who seem really proud of themselves for doing research, because...duh, you should do your research. It's part of being a good writer. The back of Roth's book has not one but two indices of endnotes and general notes, but this is a fictional account. The best contrast I can draw is between this work and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which is clearly well-researched and incorporates that work into the fictional story, but doesn't tell you about it at every turn. The Plot Against America has this air of "and look at THIS little piece of fabulousity I found! *smirk*" every couple pages, and I just found that off-putting.

I tend to adjust slightly for the time when I hear about various public figures being bigoted jerks. The reason that mass movements of foul thought succeed is that some people find ways to make them palatable for a lot of people, usually by preying on fear and prejudice. When people feel insecure in their social environment, they're much more willing to consider radical political solutions. If you don't account for that, it becomes hard to consider historical figures, particularly since we like to imagine the larger-than-life figures of history as shining pillars of perfection. This book read to me like Philip Roth got really upset when he found out that Charles Lindbergh was kind of a bigoted asshole, and wrote a book about it. Now, Lindbergh WAS kind of a bigoted asshole (in my experience, many powerful public figures are, because the ability to summarily dismiss people who may question you is an important skill to have if you want to gain massive power), but I am not sure if that merits this kind of thought experiment. Roth explores the idea that Lindbergh was a secret Nazi and got elected to the US Presidency, then began enacting or allowing anti-Semitic violence and purges. It's an interesting idea, and Roth treats the banality of evil well, but in the end, the experiment ends inconclusively.

I don't want to continue with the plot because it's probably worth a read and I don't want to spoil it, but I will say that I found it problematic. What I DID like was the compelling portrayal of fear of government and the unrest that flourishes in the presence of radical politics. I think it's interesting, too, to see the idea of a neoNazi development played out in America, where we like to think we are insulated against extremist politics. The writing is pretty good, and the characters are interesting, but as I said at the outset, I am left wondering what the point of writing this book is,

No comments:

Post a Comment