Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Philip Roth and The Plot Against America

Early October: After days of haunting Midland’s book store in the evenings, I finally get my hands on Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Have to shell out Rs 800 for it, but never mind. Reach home, open the book and a shiver passes up and down my spine as I read the first sentence: "Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear." Excellent opening line. Not polite and friendly in the "Call me Ishmael" vein but frisson-inducing, especially if you get the association of the word "presides" (in the book’s brilliantly imagined alternate world, the anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh becomes US president in 1940).

Pulse racing, I prepare to move to sentence two, when fellow Roth-ist Shougat appears. He is penurious. Needs Plot for a self-indulgent, special Roth page for his paper. Has a cocker spaniel expression, and so I pass the book over, knowing I won’t see it again for a month. (And that if he doesn’t leave it in an auto, which is what he does to cellphones.)

A month and a half later: have finished The Plot Against America and surprisingly, it took just a day to get through. Surprising because, much as I love Philip Roth, I generally take a very long time to finish his books. It isn’t that the writing is difficult, but there’s so much to absorb, each page brimming with so many thought-provoking ideas and arguments, all expressed in the most passionate, forceful prose and through the most complex characters. I get easily saturated by a Roth novel and have never been able to read two consecutively; in fact, I usually have to give myself a couple of months after finishing one and before moving on to another. This is especially true of his work of the past decade, his later books have been increasingly ambitious, and demand much of the reader.

But somehow, The Plot Against America was an easier read. This could be because Roth was writing from the perspective of a frightened young Jewish boy (himself, aged 7 to 9, in Lindbergh’s America) and so tried to be simpler, more direct in his writing; the book is certainly more conversation-driven than his other recent novels have been. It may also be because I was able to relate a little more to the historical elements of the story, knowing whatever I did about Lindbergh, Roosevelt, the Nazis and the Second World War.

Just before starting this book, I was discussing Roth with a friend who opined that "the man is incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence". Now this is the type of hyperbolic critspeak one usually takes with a pillar of salt, but it stuck in my mind this time, and so when I got around to reading the book I found myself actually examining each individual sentence in whole passages. My friend wasn't far off the mark.

More seriously, it’s utterly fascinating how Roth takes a genre that almost demands gimmickry from a writer, and bends it entirely to his own will; without any fuss, he uses the alternative history device as a mere framework for one of his most heartfelt, most honest stories. The stroke of genius here is to build the hypothesis around his own real childhood and his own real family, and to interweave (I assume) a few real events with the very different direction his and his family’s life might have taken if things had (even if very briefly) been otherwise. But at no point does Roth go overboard with the "what ifs" -- this is a realistic narrative, written as a particularly skilful autobiography. And his unparalleled empathy as a writer -- his ability to get beneath the skin of very different types of people -- is intact. (Empathy might seem a strange word to use for someone who memorably wrote, in American Pastoral, that "life isn’t about getting people right, it’s about getting them wrong, and then getting them wrong again, and then, after careful reconsideration, getting them wrong all over again." -- but then Philip Roth’s brand of empathy resides in precisely such observations.)

Philip’s father, his mother, his elder brother Sanford (who falls under the sway of the Lindbergh regime’s "Just Folks" programme, seemingly well-intentioned but really aimed at subsuming the Jewishness of American Jews), his embittered cousin Alvin and his own precocious child-self: these are the central characters of The Plot..., and they are all vivid and many-dimensional. But with the touch of a master Roth brings alive even his more peripheral creations. his aunt Evelyn and her fiance, the influential Rabbi Bengelsdorf, whose endorsement legitimises Lindbergh’s election campaign; Philip’s classmate, the pathetic, lonely Seldon, and his mother who once showed gentleness and patience to young Philip back when the worst thing that could ever befall him was being accidentally locked inside a bathroom; a giant of a new Italian neighbour who gives Mr Roth a gun and explains how to use it: "You pulla trig".

It’s remarkable how, even with the reader’s knowledge of what really happened, Roth manages to invoke dread: one feels afraid for Roosevelt, the boy’s childhood hero,.when it becomes obvious that he’s in danger of losing his bid for a third presidential term. And the arguments and counter-arguments are so complexly presented that, even with one’s historical knowledge of the Nazis’ heinous anti-Semiticism, it’s possible to briefly wonder if Philip’s father isn’t a little overwrought, even ‘ghettoised’, in the extremeness of his hatred for the Lindbergh regime. There is nothing simplistic about Roth’s approach to people and events, even when he tries his hand at what some people might deprecatingly call historical fantasy.

Roth is 71 years old now and - though I know I’ve blogged on this before -- the prolificity and quality of his output in the past decade has been staggering. Next year, he will become the third living American writer to have his work published in a definitive edition by the Library of America. The last of the eight volumes comprising this set will be published in 2013; Roth will turn 80 that year, but judging from his recent output, he won’t be making the archivists’ job easy.


  1. youre writing a book, arent you? i seem to smell one.
    mail me and tell me what its about

  2. Hi Jai..

    Just picked up 'American Pastoral' .. my first Philip Roth...and remembered you recommend this to start him...or should it be something else ?

  3. Hi Dips,
    I loved American Pastoral but I'm not sure it should be your initiation into Roth - in some passages, he's at his most self-indulgent (read: most dense, even bombastic). I'd suggest starting with either Portnoy's Complaint or Goodbye Columbus, and then working your way into the later stuff. Otherwise, even Plot AGainst America might be a good starting point.

    But the flip side is, if you do read American Pastoral first and enjoy it, then that probably means you'll comfortably be able to get through ANY Roth!

  4. I've always avoided "important" American writers, greatly preferring Indian writers. To me, there is more warmth and tendernes in Indian writing while the American novels have a remote coolness that puts me off. However, this summer I pulled a Roth off the library shelf - Goodbye, Columbus with a number of short stories in the same volume. What a revelation! And to know that there is a treasure trove of Roths to be read! It was like Christmas in July.
    And then, of course, I forgot my plans and goals until just now, coming across this post. Tomorrow I will be off to the Library looking for Philip Roth.
    So thank you very much. And Happy New Year to you!

  5. Hi Jai - I am currently reading Portnoy's Complaint which I am really enjoying. I never thought I would because the first and the only Roth book I have read apart from it is Sabbath's Theater which I disliked. Wanted to ask you his Zuckerman series has to be read in an order? As for reading his work from the 1990s and later, are there chances that I'd miss a lot if I haven't read his earlier work? Let me know.