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What Philip Knew

1.

In 1993, over the name “Philip Roth,” there appeared a book entitled Operation Shylock: A Confession, which besides being a dazzling raid into territory that had seemed to be staked out by John Barth and the metafictionists, was also about Israel and its relations with the Jewish Diaspora.

The book presents itself as the work of an American writer named Philip Roth (within the book, however, there are two such Philip Roths) who admits to a history of assisting the Israeli intelligence services. We may choose to take this confession at face value. On the other hand, the confession may be part of a larger fiction: Operation Shylock—A Confession: A Novel. Which would be the truer reading? A “Note to the Reader” seems to promise an answer. The note begins, “This book is a work of fiction,” and ends, “This confession is false.” We are in the sphere of the Cretan Liar.

If Roth did and did not mean Operation Shylock to be read as a lie, an invention, is his new book—which contains a similar note, commencing with the words “The Plot Against America is a work of fiction”—to be read in the same way, namely with its truth status held in suspension? In a sense, no, obviously not. The Plot Against America cannot be true since many of the events it describes are universally known never to have occurred. For instance, there was no President Charles Lindbergh in the White House in the years 1941–1942, carrying out secret orders from Berlin.

Just as obviously, however, Roth has not concocted this lengthy fantasy of an America in thrall to the Nazis simply as a literary exercise. So what is the relation of his story to the real world? What is his book “about”?

Roth’s President Lindbergh favors an oratorical style based on the clipped declarative sentence. His administration runs sinister programs with reassuring titles like “Just Folks” and “Homestead 42” (compare “Homeland Security,” “Patriot Act”). Behind him lurks an ideologue of a vice-president impatient to get his hands on the levers of power. The similarities between the Lindbergh presidency and the presidency of George W. Bush are hard to brush over. Is Roth’s novel of America under fascist rule then “about” America under Bush?

Roth has taken steps to head off such a reading. “Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman à clef to the present moment in America,” he writes in The New York Times Book Review. “That would be a mistake…. I am not pretending to be interested in [the years 1940–1942]—I am interested in those two years.”

It sounds unambiguous, and it is. Nevertheless, a novelist as seasoned as Roth knows that the stories we write sometimes begin to write themselves, after which their truth or falsehood is out of our hands and declarations of authorial intent carry no weight. Furthermore, once a book is launched into the world it becomes the property of its readers, who, given half a chance, will twist its meaning in accord with their own preconceptions and desires. Again Roth is aware of this: in the same New York Times piece he reminds us that, though Franz Kafka did not write his novels as political allegories, East Europeans under Communist rule read them as such and employed them for political ends.

Finally, we might note that this is not the first time Roth has invited us to think about a slide into fascism led from above. In American Pastoral (1997) the hero’s father, watching the Watergate hearings on television, observes of the circle around Richard Nixon:

These so-called patriots…would take this country and make Nazi Germany out of it. You know the book It Can’t Happen Here? There’s a wonderful book, I forget the author, but the idea couldn’t be more up-to-the-moment. These people have taken us to the edge of something terrible.

The book referred to is the now barely readable It Can’t Happen Here (1935), in which Sinclair Lewis tells of a takeover of the American government by an unstable mix of far-right and populist forces. As a model for his fascist president Lewis uses not Lindbergh but Huey Long.

In any sensible reading, The Plot Against America is “about” the presidency of George W. Bush in only the most peripheral way. It needs a paranoid reader to turn it into a roman à clef for the present. However, one of the things that The Plot Against America is about is, precisely, paranoia. In Roth’s story, the plot from above, which is immediately a plot against America’s Jews but ultimately a plot against the American republic, works so insidiously that at first sensible people cannot see it. Those who talk about a plot are dismissed as crazy.

Roth’s fictional history begins in 1940 when, having campaigned to keep America out of the new European war, the aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency. Plenty of folk are horrified by the election of a known Nazi sympathizer. But in the face of Lindbergh’s success in keeping America peaceful and prosperous, opposition dwindles. Roosevelt retires to lick his wounds. The first laws targeting Jews are passed, and evoke no outcry.

What resistance there is crystallizes around an unlikely center. Week after week the journalist Walter Winchell uses his radio program to lambaste Lindbergh. Outside the Jewish community there is little support for Winchell. The New York Times criticizes him for “questionable taste” and commends the advertisers who have him removed from the airwaves. Winchell responds by denouncing the proprietors of the Times as “ultracivilized Jewish Quislings.” Stripped of access to the media, Winchell announces himself as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1944. At a rally in the Lindbergh heartland, however, he is assassinated. At the memorial service Fiorello La Guardia delivers a Mark Antony–type oration, full of scorching irony, over the coffin. In response Lindbergh gets into his plane, flies off into the blue, and is never heard from again.

After Lindbergh’s disappearance things get worse. His vice-president and successor, Burton K. Wheeler, is an extremist. Under Wheeler there is a brief reign of terror. Riots break out; Jews and Jewish businesses are targeted. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, of all people, protests, and is promptly taken into protective custody by the FBI. There is talk of a war against Canada, which has been giving shelter to Jews from its mighty southern neighbor.

Then the country pulls itself right. Resistance brings together political figures like La Guardia and Dorothy Thompson, wife of Sinclair Lewis and animating spirit behind It Can’t Happen Here, with decent Americans from all walks of life. In an extraordinary presidential election in November 1942 Roosevelt is returned to office, and Japan promptly bombs Pearl Harbor. Thus exactly one year late, the ship of history—American history, that is—resumes its wonted course.

The 1940s are conveyed to us through the eyes of one Philip Roth, born 1933, a youngster with a stable and happy disposition that comes from being “an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.” As the Lindbergh program unrolls, however, young Philip has to absorb, stage by stage, a lesson that may well be at the heart of his author’s enterprise: that the history we learn from history books is only a domesticated version of the real thing. Real history is the unpredictable, “the relentless unforeseen.” “The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides.” To the extent that it chronicles the irruption of the relentless unforeseen into the life of a child, The Plot Against America is a history book, but of a fantastic kind, with its own truth, the sort of truth Aristotle had in mind when he said that poetry is truer than history—truer because of its power to condense and represent the multifarious in the typical.

Philip’s father, Herman Roth—whom Roth has already eulogized in Patrimony (1991)—is a man of sterling qualities with a more intense, or perhaps more romantic, loyalty to the ideals of American democracy than anyone else in the book. Herman does his best to shield his family from the gathering storm; but in order to keep them from relocation from their native Newark to the hinterland (this is what Homestead 42 is all about—isolating Jews) he has to quit his job selling insurance and take night work lugging crates in the produce market; and even there he is not safe from the threats of Agent McCorkle of the FBI.

The spectacle of his father’s powerlessness against the state sets off a psychic breakdown in Philip. This begins with petty delinquency, proceeds through alienation (“She’s somebody else,” he thinks to himself, watching his mother—“everybody is”), and ends with him fleeing home to seek sanctuary in a Catholic orphanage. He is quite clear about the meaning of running away from home. “I wanted nothing to do with history. I wanted to be a boy on the smallest scale possible.”

Philip’s breakdown is treated with a light hand—despite the menace in the air, the tone of the book is comic. His flight expresses panic more than rejection of his family. One of Roth’s alter egos, Nathan Zuckerman, has in the past insinuated that Roth the obedient, dutiful son is an impostor, and—worse—a boring impostor, that the true Roth is the sly, scabrous rebel who first put out his head in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). The Plot Against America in effect speaks back to Zuckerman, offering a pedigree for the more filial, “citizenly” Roth.

Nevertheless, Lindbergh, and what Lindbergh represents—license for everything that is ugliest in the American psyche to emerge and have its day—forces Philip to grow up too fast, lose his childhood illusions too early. Does this abrupt awakening from childhood change Philip for life? In a sense this question is illegitimate. Since Roth’s novel ends in 1942, we do not get to see Philip after nine. But if the author Philip Roth had meant to write about a fictional child whose sole existence is between the pages of a novel, he would not have called that child Philip Roth, born in the same year and of the same parents as himself. In some sense the young Philip Roth about whose childhood we read continues his life in the life of the Philip Roth who six decades later not only narrates the child’s story but writes it too.

In some sense, then, we are reading not just the story of a representative Jewish-American child of the generation that came to awareness in the 1940s—albeit here in a perverted version of the 1940s—but also the story of the real, historical Philip Roth. Puzzling out in what sense the real Philip Roth can be said to bear the marks of the child Philip’s ravaged childhood may help us to answer the question, What is this book, this work of fiction, really about?

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