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For Roth, it's a plot to look at the 'big stuff'

September 28, 2004|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

Philip Roth has always been something of a provocateur, writing books that operate like word bombs, disrupting the assumptions of the status quo. This is particularly true of his frank (some would say self-hating) presentation of American Jewry in such works as "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus," with its story "The Conversion of the Jews."

In the wake of that latter effort -- in which a 13-year-old boy threatens to jump off a synagogue unless its members admit they believe in Jesus Christ -- Roth was vilified by many Jewish readers. During a 1962 talk at New York's Yeshiva University, he was even asked: "Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you've written if you were living in Nazi Germany?"

In a certain sense, Roth's new novel, "The Plot Against America" (in stores next week), offers a response to that question, albeit at a distance of 42 years. Here, after all, Roth imagines not Nazi Germany, but Nazi America -- an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and immediately enters into nonaggression pacts with Germany and Japan.

For Roth, the story had an almost accidental origin. "In January 2001," he explains by telephone from his home in Connecticut, "I was reading the bound galleys of Arthur Schlesinger's autobiography, and when I got to the 1930s and 1940s, he wrote in passing that there were people in the Republican Party who wanted to nominate Lindbergh for president. I read that line and it stunned me, because I thought: 'What if they had?' "

Such a "what if" has a profound historical resonance, for Lindbergh was, at best, an anti-Interventionist who viewed war with Germany as against American interests. At worst, he was, in the words of Roosevelt Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, "the No. 1 United States Nazi fellow traveler," an anti-Semite who, in a 1941 speech in Des Moines, accused American Jews of using "their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government" to press the U.S. into a European war.

The power of family

For the Jews in the novel, this translates into an atmosphere of fear and paranoia as, little by little, their citizenship is circumscribed. Making things more immediate is Roth's decision to focus the narrative on his real family: his father Herman; his mother Bess; his older brother Sandy; and his own boyhood self.

"I wanted it to affect a family," he says, "but it seemed to me that if I began to invent other people, I'd get all muddled up. So I told myself the simplest thing to do -- and perhaps the best thing to do -- was to change just one thing: that is, the result of the 1940 election. Have Lindbergh run and win. But leave everything else in place."

Roth, of course, has long blurred the line between reality and invention in his fiction. His 1993 novel "Operation Shylock" -- subtitled "A Confession" -- involves a writer named Philip Roth who discovers someone impersonating him, while his Zuckerman books ("The Ghost Writer," "Zuckerman Unbound," "The Anatomy Lesson" and "The Prague Orgy") explore the author's life through the filter of his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, who reappears throughout Roth's work as a kind of counterpoint.

Like such efforts, "The Plot Against America" is neither autobiography nor history, but a riff, an extrapolation, a reinterpretation of the world.

"Lindbergh was not a fellow traveler," says A. Scott Berg, whose 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Lindbergh" Roth used as a source. "Nor was he necessarily a Republican or a conservative. He was a real independent voter. He voted twice for Adlai Stevenson." As for the anti-Semitism question, Berg sees it as somewhat more nuanced, noting that Lindbergh had Jewish friends and even helped one man, a doctor, escape from Nazi Germany, although, in the end, "he did think about and treat Jews differently than everyone else."

For Roth, though, these issues are less than central, since what interests him is not Lindbergh so much as the effect his fictional administration has on the novel's characters. "Henry James," he notes, "said: 'Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize.' You've got to find a means of dramatizing the large concern you have but if you're a novelist, you can only do it through human relations.

"That's why I thought, let's keep my family there because I don't want this thing to be didactic. So if my mother has to get a job to send money to Canada, there's a reality. Or my father having to quit his job. Or my brother discovering America. The closer I can keep to the way people live and the further I can keep from the danger of writing an abstract political text of some kind, the better off I am."

Roth calls such a process "bringing history into the house," and it has motivated much of his writing since his 1986 novel "The Counterlife." In that book, he began to look more fundamentally beyond himself, to connect the intricacies of the inner and the outer worlds.

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