The Heights of Fiction; Philip Roth's Extraordinary New Novel Alters History to Put Hitler's Friend, Charles Lindbergh, in the White House
Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT
THE life and works of Philip Roth interleave in so many calculatedly overwrought ways that readers stagger between fiction and autobiography, never quite knowing which is which. Roth can be wilfully perverse. The narrator in some novels is called "Philip Roth"; his much-loved parents and elder brother live in Newark, New Jersey.
Elsewhere, his narrator spies on the author Philip Roth and accuses him of anti-Semitism. In Operation Shylock (1993), both Roths meet.
Roth offers morsels of clarification in a 1998 memoir titled The Facts, but this work is now listed in his bibliography as fiction. Go figure.
There had to be a point to these ingenious deceptions, and that point is now emerging. In his new novel, The Plot Against America, Roth takes a moment in modern history and subjects it to a crucial alteration. Instead of re-electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a third term in 1940, America is seduced by a last-ditch Republican contender, Charles A Lindbergh.
Charismatic, isolationist and virulently anti-Semitic, the celebrated aviator promises to keep America out of the war. He signs a neutrality pact with Hitler and welcomes his foreign minister, Ribbentrop, to the White House. America turns progressively fascist and persecutes its Jews.
The Roths of Newark find themselves in the eye of a gathering Holocaust.
Philip Roth, real or imagined, narrates the turbulence as a boy of eight and nine. His family manages to avoid deportation to the Midwest, where Jews are forcibly assimilated or eliminated. His cousin flees to Europe to fight Hitler and returns without a leg. His aunt marries a turncoat rabbi, a Lindbergh apologist.
Blood is shed in the family living room.
How could it possibly happen, he makes you wonder, in America of all open societies? At no point does Roth let the reader blink with incredulity. Each political shift, each increase in pressure, is endorsed by our intense familiarity with American innocence, and with Hitler's masterplan. Step by step, as in Germany, America embraces inhumanity. It could, you keep thinking, have happened there.
It might yet.
Roth has made haste to deny that he has written a parable for present times, but the spectre of a grinning politician who gladhands his way to victory on a ticket of American supremacism is too proximate to be ignored, and Roth is too honest a writer to ignore it. In an essay in The New York Times, he describes President Bush as "a man unfit to run a hardware store, let alone a nation like this one". His novel reads like a warning from history. "We are ambushed," says Roth, "even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history."
That sentence may be the most coherent response by any American to the national confusion that erupted on September 11, 2001, a confusion that paralysed its president for 18 white-faced minutes and provoked a war in Iraq on the basis of misinformation. Roth, in his wilful criss-crossing of fact and fiction, has achieved a clarity that is brighter and deeper than any political vision. In doing so, he has hauled the American novel back from John Updike's smalltown Rabbitry to the place where it belongs - at the heart of world affairs.
"I had no such book in mind, nor was it a book of a kind I was looking to write," Roth has protested, but this is the book that he was born to write and has spent his life writing towards.
The destiny was never in question. …