Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Well,yes, the novel is three or so years old, but the happiness of reading a great novel one found as a used paperback somewhere in the grimy stacks of a consignment gives one a mission to share the small but powerful joy of it all.
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Novelist Philip Roth, always a spiky and unpredictable story teller, creates an alternative history for America, a fascinating and troubling fantasy of "what if": Charles Lindbergh, aviation hero and Nazi-sympathetic isolationist, is nominated by the Republican Party in the 1940 presidential election, and handily defeats FDR. Using his own family as the center of this fable, Roth has written a novel with the impact of a memoir of hard and terrible times,speaking to how easily a homegrown fascism could take root and grow. The power of Roth's novel lies not only in the impressive historical research he brings to the novel, but especially in how creeping Totalitarian persecution effects the lives of characters who are complex, sympathetic, argumentative.

This is not a dry recital of dates, events, names from fading ledgers and indexes, because the novel is a family saga among its several formations, and what Roth has done is highlight a family's struggle between each other and their inner lives while the nation prepares to give in to its worse fears and lay the land for fascism. Several instances -- the family listening the radio during the convention, a hapless father become less powerful in the children's eyes as political forces move against American Jews, the subtly advanced symbolism of the fictional Philip Roth's stamp collection-- gives a reader an vivid accounting of the things that disrupted, destroyed, lost by systematized evil.
The Plot Against America is a masterpiece of the first rank, as relevant as morning headlines, timeless as great literature, qualities that place him, unexpectedly, in the same league with Sinclair Lewis.This is art as a form of truth-telling, of an acute paranoia made comprehensible through a focus of literary skill that gives voice to the unspeakable. Roth was obliviously raised to revere democracy , and this work, tempered by experience and the history of human kind to go wrong and become complicit in evil, sounds off a warning for the reader that is hardly an original thought but meaningful resounds even still: the price of freedom is constant vigilance because the enemies of our rights as citizens are snakes sleeping with one eye open.