Posted Monday night, January 23, 2018.
On the planet Ekos, which under the (mis)guidance of a deranged Earth historian has modeled itself on Nazi Germany, a disguised Mr Spock is interrogated by the Deputy Fuhrer Malakon in an episode of the original Star Trek TV series called “Patterns of Force,” the only “What If the Nazis Had Won?” story I’ve ever enjoyed.
I wonder if “What if the Nazis Had Won?” stories are popular in Europe. Not that I would know, but I’d guess not. They’re unnecessary. The Europeans already know the answer because the Nazis did win.
I’m thinking of Western Europe. I imagine they’re intrigued by a different question in Eastern Europe: “Would it have been better if the Nazis had won?”
Two things: I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction or movies and stories that have the Nazis winning are about as dystopian as dystopian gets. And I have to make myself read Philip Roth. You’re probably already ahead of me and know why those two things aren’t non-sequiturs.
I’ve never liked stories that are premised on imagining the world gone mad because even as a little kid I knew that the world was mad. Why waste time and thought making up ways the world might be mad when all you had to do was put your finger on any spot on the map and you’d locate a place where some form of madness reigns. I figured that people went to movies and read novels about imaginary mad, mad worlds because they were too frightened to face this world’s all too real madness directly. I sound like I was an awfully hard-headed realist for my young age, but I actually I was a romantic and drawn to stories about worlds where good people conquered the madness. My favorite such stories were the tales of King Arthur and his Knights, which is ironic, considering Camelot ends with the world going mad. The attraction of What if the Nazis Had Won stories was lost on me, because I thought that if you wanted to know what would have happened all you had to do was take a hard-headed, realistic look at what did happen and because wanting such stories didn’t fit with my theory that people liked dystopias because they couldn’t face the world’s all to real madness directly---if that was the case, then why would you enjoy imagining a world gone even madder? Did people like giving themselves nightmares? It was a long time before I learned that the answer to that was yes. Thing is, I never did and still don’t. Which is why I have no interest in watching The Man in the High Castle.
Don’t try changing mind by telling me how good it is. Good and bad have nothing to do with it.
As for Philip Roth, good and bad have nothing to do with why I have to force myself to read his stuff. Neither does the man himself, except as he sneaks into his own fiction. (By the way, don’t make the mistake that his various “alter-egos,” including Nathan Zuckerman and “Philip Roth,” are him in disguise. He’s one cagey bastard. Those alter-egos are alter-egos of the alter-ego who’s supposedly writing the story, the fictional character behind the fictional “I”, who may be an alter-ego of Roth or may be the alter-ego of another alter-ego.) No, it’s not him---or “him”---it’s us.
The reason I have to force myself to read his stuff---and I’ve forced myself to read almost all his stuff, including Sabbath’s Theater, which I had to force myself to read all the way through, not the case with many of his other books. Once I got started, I didn’t have to force myself to keep going---is that Roth writes dystopian fiction in that he paints a dystopian picture of human nature. It’s not that the world isn’t mad, it’s that the people in the world as he sees it are mad. They’re mad because of it, or apart from it, or simply along with it. They cause the world’s madness and they cause their own. They make themselves mad and they make the people around them mad. They’re perverse that way. I don’t enjoy looking at human beings that way. I don’t usually see people that way. I see them---us---as weak, flawed, vicious, wicked, evil, and sinful, and I don’t mind and in fact enjoy stories that show us at our worst. But I like to see strength, decency, and virtue win out in the end. To put it simply, as much as I pride myself on my hard-headed realism, I’m a Romantic at heart, and Roth isn’t. He has almost no Romance in him. He’s a hard-headed realist, through and through.
And a cruel to the point of sadistic one at that.
What I’ve been leading up to is this: one of the few novels of his I hadn’t yet forced myself to read was The Plot Against America.
And why would I have? A What if the Nazis Had Won story by the writer whose writing on the best of days sinks me into a pit of misanthropic despair?
So why are you reading it now, Lance? I hear you asking, once again a step ahead of me.
Because I read this interview with Roth in which I learned that David Simon is making it into a mini-series. Since I know I’ll watch it despite myself, because of Simon---and because I’m curious to see who’ll play Charles Lindbergh---I figure I might as well get a jump on it and maybe inoculate my soul against the despair I expect the series to cause.
I’m not very far into the novel but I already know I was wrong about the plot of The Plot Against America.
It’s not a What if the Nazis Had Won story. It’s a What If A Fascist Won the 1940 Presidential Election story. I’m not giving much away that Roth himself doesn’t give away right at the start.: the answer is, he’d have a hard time of it, trying to turn the United States fascist, and ultimately he’d fail.
Here’s Roth’s giveaway.
The story centers around Jewish family named Roth living in Newark, New Jersey in 1940, the year, the novel has it, American Firster, Nazi sympathizer, and anti-semite Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in FDR’s try for a third term as president. This isn’t at all far-fetched. Lindbergh, despite having disgraced himself with a nationally virulent speech in Madison Square Garden in which he blamed all the country’s troubles on the Jews was still a popular hero; meanwhile, a lot of people didn’t think Roosevelt should even have considered running for a third term and they weren’t happy with his attempts to maneuver the country into an alliance with England in its war with Nazi Germany. Lindbergh was not a candidate. The GOP nominated lawyer and businessman Wendell Wilkie, who had no political experience and not much of a national reputation, and yet Wilke still managed to give Roosevelt a scare on election night. In The Plot Against America, Lindbergh shows up at the deadlocked Republican convention and is nominated by acclamation. Meanwhile, the Roth’s two sons, Sandy, who’s twelve, and Philip, seven, go about the business of being somewhat above average American kids. Sandy is a budding artist. Philip collects stamps. And it’s through Roth’s descriptions of Philip’s stamp collecting that we learn that Lindbergh ultimately fails:
On the green one-cent stamp in the educators group, just above the picture of the Lamp of Knowledge, was Horace Mann; on the red two-cent, Mark Hopkins; on the purple three-cent, Charles W. Eliot; on the blue four-cent, Frances E. Willard; on the brown ten-cent was Booker T. Washington, the first Negro to appear on an American Stamp. I remember that after placing the Booker T. Washington in my album and showing my mother how it completed the set of five, I had asked her, “Do you think there’ll ever be a Jew on a stamp?” and she replied, “Probably---someday, yes. I hope so anyway.” In fact, twenty-six years had to pass, and it took Einstein to do it.
Albert Einstein was already living in the United States in 1940, but if there’d been a President Lindbergh and he’d had his way, he probably wouldn’t have been living there much longer, if he was even left alone to live anywhere else. Certainly, he wouldn’t have become a beloved American icon worthy of recognition by the U.S. Postal Service in 1966.
The real Philip Roth grew up in Newark, like the Philip in the novel; was the son of an insurance agent and a housewife and community activist, just like the Philip in the novel; had a brother named Sandy, who was an artist; and was seven years old in 1940. I don’t know if he collected stamps. He writes about stamp collecting as if he did, so I’m assuming he did. I’m not assuming that “Philip Roth” is Philip Roth, but this is one case where he may be intended to be.
This is the other reason I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the book so far and, although I had to force myself to start reading it, I haven’t had force myself to keep reading.
The Plot Against America seems on track to be hopeful, optimistic, and patriotic novel. Roth doesn't mitigate the attraction fascism holds for many Americans and he’s always taken it as a kind of duty for himself as a writer to explore the ways anti-semitism is woven into the fabric of American life. But in The Plot Against America he seems out to show that a resistance to fascism is a quality of the American character. He takes the opportunity to show that character revealing itself in the day to day routines of the Newark neighborhood he grew up in. People are capable of acting as madly as they do in Roth’s other books, and madness and perversity still prosper, but his main characters and their neighbors are shown to be decent, virtuous, and sane. At least, that’s the way they appear in the what I’ve read so far.
Roth appears to be using a dark and disturbing alternative history as cover for writing idyllically about his own actual history. He writes about the days of his boyhood with affection and even borders on sentimentality. He’s still writing as a hard-headed realist, but he’s not as cynical or cruel. The Plot Against America is hardly a Romantic book, but so far it is a nostalgic one.
On the sidewalk during the long vacation months we played a new game called “I Declare War,” using a cheap rubber ball and a piece of chalk. With the chalk you drew a circle some five or six feet in diameter, partitioned it into as many pielike segments as there were players, and chalked into each the name of one of various foreign countries that had been in the news throughout the year. Next each player picked “his” country and stood straddling the edge of the circle, one foot inside and one foot out, so that when the time came he could flee in a hurry. Meanwhile a designated player, holding the ball aloft in his hand, announced slowly, in an ominous cadence, “I---Declare---War---On---” There was a suspenseful pause, and then the kid declaring war would slam the ball down, in the same instant shouting “America!”---and everybody would take off except the one on whom the surprise attack had been launched. His job was to catch the ball on the bounce as quickly as he could and call “Stop!” Everybody now allied against him would have to freeze in place, and the victim would begin the counterattack, trying to eliminate one aggressor country at a time by walloping each as hard as he could with the ball, beginning by throwing at those closest to him and advancing his position with each murderous thwack.
We played this game incessantly, until it rained and temporarily the names of the countries were washed away. People had to either step on them or over them when they made their way down the street. In our neighborhood there was no other graffiti to speak of in those days, just this. the remnants of the hieroglyphics of our simple street games. Harmless enough, and yet it drove some of the mothers crazy who had to hear us at it for hours on end through their open windows. “Can’t you kids do something else? Can’t you find another game to play?” But we couldn’t---declaring war was all we thought about too.
This passage, with all its quotidian detail, could appear exactly as written in a straight up historical or autobiographical novel or in a memoir. But maybe that’s the point.
Even as the world goes mad, life goes on pretty much as it always has for people who aren’t immediately touched by the madness. That’s what happened here in the time leading up to our entry into the war and in fact continued to happen even while we sent our young men and women off to fight and die by the tens and tens of thousands. They were missed and mourned of course, but their empty places at the dinner table grew to be taken for granted to the point that they became if not invisible unremarked upon, and their younger brothers and sisters still went out to play until it got dark and they had to come in and get ready for bed, just as if there was no war on and the world was as sane and orderly and safe as it used to be.
And the same thing went on in occupied France and even in Germany. Whole days, whole weeks could pass for most people in the ways they had passed before the first shots were fired. This “normalcy” may have contributed to the spread of fascism or at least to its acceptance. Most Frenchmen and women weren’t collaborators but neither were they members of the Resistance. The swastikas and the jackboots and the raised right arms blended in with the sights and sounds of everyday life. Fascism took hold because people stopped seeing it taking hold. They just saw it the way they saw all the other things they were used to and took for granted in their daily comings and goings. They even got used to it within themselves as feature of their own feeling and thinking. And now I’ve got myself worried.
Maybe that’s what Roth is setting me up for. Like I said, he’s a cagey bastard. Maybe The Plot Against America isn’t about how we’re immune to fascism but how we’re as susceptible as any place else. This is Roth’s way of sneaking up on that theme.
Don’t tell me if you know.
I’ll force myself to read it for myself.
You can read Charles McGrath’s interview with Roth by following the link to No Longer Writing, Philip Roth Still Has Plenty to Say at the New York Times.