Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Roth's Plot Against America

There were times in the middle of this novel that I thought Roth was visiting some darkly important possible history, but the ending, with its brisk return to politics as usual, undercut the narrative's slow triumph of justified fear over paranoia. With the politics so easily resolved, the novel seems in retrospect to return to the family-drama size that, in truth, it always was.

It's an excellent family drama, though. I particularly respected the treatment of the ne'er-do-well adopted nephew Alvin, who joins the Canadian forces to fight against the Nazis early on, but comes back with an amputated leg into an America that doesn't honor his war. Alvin is seen mostly through the eyes of the young Philip, the main narrative focus, who is horrified and fascinated by Alvin's missing leg, with its stump's festering wounds and its ill-fitting prosthetic. At about ten years old, Philip declares that he is Alvin's prosthetic. I'm still thinking about that statement.

Young Philip, who ages over the novel from about eight to about 12 (if I've got it right), is nervously tuned into every sign of strife. His older brother participates in a program to send Jewish children into the heartland for assimilation; he comes back from Tennessee a bit of a prat and a willing propagandist. His aunt has married the Rabbi-in-Chief, whose imprimatur has allowed Lindbergh to claim that his policies aren't anti-semitic. Philip's father is something of an old-school leftist, and his mother is happiest within the Jewish community of Newark, and so the two of them struggle against their desires to see their children advance and their fears that leaving the "ghetto" is part of an anti-Jewish program.

The idea that assimilation can be held out as both a promise and a threat seems to me to be a very contemporary concern. I just wish that the ending of Roth's novel had given me a better sense of what he was trying to say by evoking these ideas, these fears. If there was a fourth-act tragic death, it was the mother of Seldon--the downstairs neighbors' kid--and not only did she die offstage, she died in a flashback in an entirely different state, and she was never particularly vivid to begin with. The fifth act, if that's an appropriate frame to read this novel with, contains a lot of denouement, but no sense of real resolution.

Here is what the professional reviewers have said...


Anonymous mrh:

I think I agree. I liked the book a lot, but I agree, in retrospect, that the ending was a bit pat. At the time, though, I was so sucked in to the book that I was just relieved.

2/21/2007 10:35:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

It is a relief, isn't it? And yet so sudden. I was left feeling a little like I do after some horror films: I got all worked up, and that trace of fog was just a trace of fog?

2/21/2007 10:59:00 PM  
Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman:

I'm currently without spacebar -- and ascii-spacing is a bitch -- but I did want to point y'all to the discussion we had about this on the Valve here and here. More later (if you're interested) when I can type like a proper person.

2/22/2007 12:09:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Thanks for the links, Scott. I probably should pay more attention to the debates over at the Valve. I keep meaning to!

2/22/2007 12:18:00 AM  
Anonymous I don't pay:

It left me wondering if he has quite settled the justified-fear/paranoia issue himself, wanted us to feel the force—and his own power to invoke it— of the first without being able to quite believe in it. And perhaps satisfied that after waking from this vivid nightmare, we wouldn't be any more sure than he is.

Those evocations of childhood memories, like the trip to Washington and the hospital visits in Everyman are becoming very vivid

2/22/2007 03:29:00 PM  
Anonymous NCProsecutor:

I really got into the family conflict and the mystery of the character of President Lindbergh. I was sort of hoping that the ending would be a bit less, well, succinct and formulaic, but Roth does take us pretty far down the scary road of Nazism in America.

The part about the stump was kind of gross, though.

2/25/2007 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

What are you talking about, NCProsecutor! The stump was awesome.

2/25/2007 12:28:00 PM  

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