'Perpetual Fear': Repetition and Fantasy in the Plot against America by Philip Roth

Article excerpt

Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.

Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of

Jews. (Plot 1)

Fear certainly presides over the incipit of Philip Roth's The Plot against America, a Novel, published in 2004; the very first sentence literally encapsulates the whole narrative beginning with the word fear and ending with a chapter entitled "Perpetual fear." As a matter of fact this forceful incipit gives the key to the novel's major thematic content (fear) as well as to the main narrative strategy: repetition, so systematic a repetition that it creates clusters of obsession. And it so happens that this hyperbolic, all-invading fear is made all the more powerful as it is still there, poisoning the narrator's present narration of his past memories. There is no paranoia, though, as some critics may have suggested. For what is this time-transcending "perpetual fear" directly connected with "Jews" if not a euphemistic reference to antisemitism?

Besides, "perpetual fear" indirectly recalls the "eternal antisemitism" doctrine that Hannah Arendt denounced as "giv[ing] the best possible alibi for all horrors" (Arendt 7) in her chapter about "Antisemitism as an outrage to common sense" in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951, revised 1973). This is not to say that The Plot Against America is to be read as a theoretical essay on antisemitism or even a belated response to Arendt; it is to be read for what it is: a novel, and one of a most provocative kind, for sure, on the "what if" mode, what if America had gone fascist and elected an overtly antisemitic president? Let's say that the result proves Arendt totally right: it's "all horrors," martial law, riots, massacres, pogroms and murder and there's very little outcry from "ordinary" American citizens. Those that dare speak out, like Walter Winchell on the radio or F.D. Roosevelt, are silenced one way or another, temporarily "detained" in Roosevelt's case or simply "murdered" like Winchell.

This "terrific political novel" (Paul Berman, The New York Times Book Review) which was published three years after the 9/11 tragic events did not raise the big controversy some of the critics announced, maybe because Roth made it perfectly clear in his "Postscript Note to the Reader" that " The Plot Against America [was] a work of fiction" (Plot 364). And the book was well received as such: "a fable of an alternative universe" (Berman), "a stunning work of political extrapolation" (Charles). To go on with the reception of the book, let's mention that some critics pointed at a subtext about the Bush administration and the dangers of isolationism in American contemporary policies after the 9/11 events, which Roth repeatedly denied. And also a jarring note coming from Bill Kauffman (from The American Conservative) who denounced The Plot as "a repellent novel, bigoted and libelous of the dead, dripping with hatred of rural America, of Catholics, of any Middle American who has ever dared stand against the war machine" (Kauffman 2004). Charles Lindbergh as the point of junction between fantasy and antisemitism in the Roth novel is precisely what the controversy originates in and feeds on. So Lindbergh as the illustration of the fiction and history (or "Counterhistory") interplay in the novel will be discussed with special emphasis on his function in the building up of "the terror of the unforeseen."

I. 'The terror of the unforeseen " (Plot 113): History or Counterhistory?

The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides,

turning a disaster into an epic. (Plot 114)

That "disaster" is Lindbergh's election as president; it is a major change in the narrator's life ("A new life began for me. I'd watch my father fall apart, and I would never return to the same childhood" [Plot 113]) and a turning point in the collective history of America, referred to as "the unfolding of the unforeseen": "And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. …