A review of the novel “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth

This work of fiction essentially poses two questions: could America become fascist? if it did, would it do so through a popular non-politician becoming president with the secret manipulation of a foreign power? When this novel was first published in 2004, these questions must have seemed fantastical. When I eventually read the work after a four-year term in the White House by Donald Trump, these questions seemed not merely very much less theoretical but almost prophetic. 

The narrative is located in the period June 1940 to October 1942 in a Jewish suburb of Newark in New Jersey and the viewpoint is that of Philip Roth himself as a child of between seven and nine. The central proposition of this counterfactual history is that in November 1940 Franklin D Roosevelt failed to secure a third term when he was roundly defeated by Charles A Lindbergh, the famous aviator and noted Nazi sympathiser. Almost all the characters mentioned in the 360-page story were real-life individuals and, extraordinarily for a work of fiction, the novel concludes with 28 pages of historic notes consisting mainly of pen portraits of 39 personages.

At one point, the narrator’s father states of Lindberg supporters: “They live in a dream and we live in a nightmare”. At another point, FDR is made to refer to “a plot being hatched by anti-democratic forces here at home harboring a Quisling blueprint for a fascist America or by foreign nations greedy for power and supremacy”. Roth – who died during Trump’s occupation of the White House – could have been writing about Trump’s fanatical supporters and Putin’s nefarious interference.

Roth’s focus is very much on one Jewish family – ostensibly his family – but his sweep of characters and events is considerable. In spite of repeated use of very long (but perfectly formed) sentences, this is an easy – if unsettling – read, although the ending does seem rather sudden and somewhat contrived.


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