Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Get Your Map of America": Tempering Dystopia and Learning Topography. in the Plot against America

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Get Your Map of America": Tempering Dystopia and Learning Topography. in the Plot against America

Article excerpt

Ever since Neil Klugman speculated in the opening pages of Goodbye, Columbus (1959) that the drive up to the hills of the Newark suburbs might bring one "closer to heaven," Philip Roth has made the frustration of longings for utopia one of his major themes. (1) Especially since his American trilogy, Roth's critics have been rightly preoccupied with his application of anti-utopian and anti-pastoral thinking to increasingly large swaths of American history, his critique of what Ross Posnock identifies as his characters' drive to "exist in a mythic yesteryear, creating a national fantasy." (2) The American trilogy critiques a postwar cast of, as Murray says in I Married a Communist (1998), "utopianists." These include believers in socialism like Murray's brother Ira, but also non-ideological dreamers like Ira's wife Eve, whose desire for the perfect home needs, according to Roth, "a dose of life's dung." (3) Swede Levov's hope for domestic stability in American Pastoral (1997) calls for a similar dose. Roth always insists on making messy experience overwhelm any attempt to retreat to an absolving locale: Faunia's dirty mop water and Les's violent mind give the lie to the "pure and peaceful" image, as The Human Stain (2000) ends, of a fisherman alone on a lake "constantly turning over its water atop an Arcadian mountain in America. " (4)

But though (as Nathan Zuckerman emphatically concludes in Communist) "[t]here are no utopias" and (as his wife does in The Counterlife) "[t]he pastoral is not your genre," Roth has not developed in his work the seemingly most natural "counterlife" to utopia, a dystopian social order. His turn to the pogroms and pro-Nazi Lindbergh presidency of The Plot Against America (2004) does seem to signal such a deployment of the dystopian. (5) But it turns out that dystopia isn't Roth's genre either; some purity is mixed in with the dung. For all the "perpetual fear" it evinces, The Plot, in its concentration on familial strength and a resilient boyhood consciousness, depicts an unexpectedly limited and tempered dystopia, dwelling less on American Nazis and Jewish persecution than on the sentimental idealization of his childhood Newark as an "inviolate haven" that Roth confessed to in The Facts (1988). (6) I argue here that Roth's neutralizing refusal to grant either utopian or dystopian extreme full sway leads him to a newly enriched interest in the simply topographical. The Plot mediates its dark materials of global conspiratorial plotting and race hatred by illuminating a child's more mundane and localized acts of plotting--his participatory mapping of his surroundings and his out-of-school "education" in how to regard the vast nation of which he knows himself to be a part but which he cannot fully fathom (101). Following on Roth's well-established interest in illiterates learning to read, young Philip undergoes an initiation into cartographic literacy, a term I borrow from historian of geography David Matless, who links it to the modern subject's mature conception of citizenship. (7) Engaging a dramatic political extreme of the sort his work has so often scrupulously avoided in depicting the U.S., Roth re-investigates the discursive means by which home links to homeland in the American mind.

Dystopian fiction tends to "demonstrate the push and pull between utopian and dystopian perspectives," according to Erika Gottlieb's comparison of dystopias from democracies and totalitarian states between 1920 and 1991. "[E]ach dystopian society contains within it seeds of a utopian dream." (8) Kristan Kumar writes in a similar vein that anti-utopia and dystopia are "one side of a dialogue of the self with individuals who have been indelibly stamped with the utopian temperament." (9) Roth, an inveterate idealizer of the meaning of America but also a dogged critic of such idealization, seems to fit this psychological type, Gottlieb's "push and pull" of opposites correlating loosely with the "anti-myth[s]" of counterlives so many of his characters construct. …

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