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the complete review - fiction
The Plot Against America
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- Includes A True Chronology of the Major Figures, and other documentation
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A : excellent, though goes a bit astray
See our review for fuller assessment.
Many very, very impressed, but not quite a consensus -- and many disappointed by the historical resolution Roth chooses
From the Reviews:
- "Insecurity saturates The Plot Against America. Unfortunately, the saturation goes right down to the level of its telling. For a writer blessed with the eyes and ears to find real life fantastic in every detail, fantasy is the wrong form. (...) Roth does a pretty good job of spoiling the story himself, by dishing out improbabilities with shameless haste; if it were not for the quality of the writing, you could be reading The Da Vinci Code. Luckily for the reader's mental health, Roth is no more capable of an uninteresting sentence than Dan Brown is capable of an interesting one. (...) It's an understandable bad dream. But it hasn't led to a good book, and couldn't have." - Clive James, The Atlantic Monthly
- "The result is a cautionary story in the tradition of The Handmaid's Tale, a stunning work of political extrapolation about a triumvirate of hate, ignorance, and paranoia that shreds decency and overruns liberty. Roth provides brilliant analysis of political rhetoric: the way demagogues manipulate public opinion and the way responsible journalists inadvertently prop up tyrants in their devotion to objectivity and balance. But what really gives the novel life is its narrator: a little boy named Phil Roth." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
- "Roth's lack of conviction about his own central plot device is palpable throughout. Most of the actual fright that occurs in the novel is caused by the kind of domestic violence that has nothing to do with government provocation (.....) The danger it points up is not the danger it describes; the danger it points up is of political infantilization." - Ruth Wisse, Commentary
- "Admittedly, the book's historical aspects can seem thin and preposterous, especially the book's final twist, which allows Roosevelt back into office. Yet this matters much less than the description of how history can encroach upon an ordinary family, and how simple survival becomes an instance of heroism." - The Economist
- "But with this fascinating, fertile material, Roth has spun an unconvincing fantasy that falls far short of his finest work. While his depictions of the Roth family's idyllic pre-Lindbergh existence (and Philip's vibrant, eccentric inner life) are detailed and persuasive, he has set them against a cardboard backdrop of a fatally underimagined alternative America." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly
- "The Plot Against America creates its reality magisterially, in long, fluid sentences that carry you beyond scepticism and with a quotidian attentiveness to sights and sounds, tastes and smells, surnames and nicknames and brandnames -- an accumulation of des petits faits vrais -- that dissolves any residual disbelief." - Blake Morrison, The Guardian
- "Perhaps as the book moved towards its inevitable end a certain reticence overtook Roth. How dare he match his make-believe against the great testimonies of his friends, Primo Levi and Aharon Appelfeld, who had experienced what he was only imagining? Anyway, Roth stayed his hand, practised what feels like self-censorship, and yanked history back on course - and thereby dampening the fires of his inspiration. Good for his character, good for the Jews, but not so good for the book. Tastefulness is not Roth's forte." - Clive Sinclair, The Independent
- "It is weakest when the bigger national narrative -- the story of the Lindbergh administration -- and the smaller family narrative fail to mesh. Towards the end -- which feels rushed -- Roth almost gives up trying to integrate the two. (...) Like all Roth's fiction, this novel is dazzling but flawed. Roth has made the strange decision to undercut the dramatic tension inherent within his own story. (...) But it would be ridiculous to grumble. Philip Roth with flaws is still the most exciting novelist writing today." - Johann Hari, Independent on Sunday
- "I called the book 'astonishing', but what astonishes is not this wild counter-history -- it is presented too plausibly for that -- or any fireworks in the prose, which is uncommonly sober, though always elegant. What's astonishing is the way Roth puts together the stories of the shaken Jewish family and an America that can't see what's happening to it, that isn't shaken enough. (...) But what's astonishing is still the quiet domesticity of the story and its telling." - Michael Wood, London Review of Books
- "One of the achievements of The Plot Against America is showing how fear slowly infects the very weather of one's life, tightening each swallow of breath." - James Wolcott, The Nation
- "The real shame is that the successful parts of the book, the intimate, are mired in this swamp of ugly fairy tale, the public. By creating a public history so far-fetched, and then failing to deliver it in any believable way, the small portraits are disconnected from the movement of the book. The intimate portraits of families and people are left to float like vignettes in a context we can never quite bring ourselves to buy." - Max Watman, The New Criterion
- "The novel is unashamedly nostalgic -- and this is the pleasure of it, for both writer and reader. (...) The Plot Against America is, in many ways, an unsatisfactory book: not quite fiction and not quite believable. There are too many long, dull explicatory passages of historical narrative -- a kind of elaborate scene-setting. It is Roth at his most benign and forgiving, of his parents, of his extended family, and of his tortured relationship with his own Jewishness. Roth the hectoring raconteur, the stand-up comedian, the tyrannical monologist is absent." - Jason Cowley, New Statesman
- "Rothís Holocaust novel becomes something like a Holocaust anti-novel, where the crucial point appears to be that whatís happening on the page has never actually happened in life." - Keith Gessen, New York
- "It needs a paranoid reader to turn it into a roman à clef for the present. However, one of the things that The Plot Against America is about is, precisely, paranoia." - J.M.Coetzee, The New York Review of Books
- "(P)rovocative but lumpy (.....) In the end, this novel tries to link the personal concerns of so much of Mr. Roth's early fiction with the sweeping, historical tableau of his American trilogy. If the telescope turned on America in this novel sorely lacks the verisimilitude and keen social observation found in American Pastoral and The Human Stain, the microscope it turns on the Roths still provides an intimate glimpse of one family's harrowing encounter with history." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "The novel is sinister, vivid, dreamlike, preposterous and, at the same time, creepily plausible. (...) Roth has found his way to an archetypal nightmare -- the anxious, ancestral, midnight fear of the American Jews. This, finally, is the rumbling engine that keeps The Plot Against America securely aloft and chugging forward -- the emotion that Roth has allowed himself to feel, luxuriously and at length." - Paul Berman, The New York Times Book Review
- "One of the glories of the book is its counterpoint of large and small, its zooming back and forth, from chapter to chapter, between world events and the reactions to them in the Roth household. (...) (S)inuous and brilliant" - Joan Acocella, The New Yorker
- "But for the first 300 pages -- on page 301 he suddenly, almost perversely, gives his story what seems a radically wrong turn -- The Plot Against America is too ingeniously excruciating to put down." - David Gates, Newsweek
- "It's a curious fizzling of a bold enterprise. There seems no need, in this genre of fiction, to return to the starting point, no advantage to be gained by doing so. Once people's hidden hatreds are legitimised by the authorities, anything can happen. Isn't that the whole point ? It's the novelist's job to follow his speculations to their furthest point -- hardly a task that Roth has shirked in the past. It almost amounts to a retraction, to an acknowledgement that American history as we have known it has some magnetic integrity, so that his imagination can wrench it out of true only on a temporary basis." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer
- "What gives this story its feverish poignancy -- even beauty -- is that these events are recorded through the eyes of the author as a child as he tries to fathom the collapse of his innocent world. It may sound loony to say this is Roth's To Kill a Mockingbird." - Tom Gliatto, People
- "All of this is nothing if not entertaining. But in the end, entertaining is all it is, even though the foregrounded Roth family drama is as psychologically acute as anything in the authorís work -- a horribly plausible account of children and parents coping with encroaching political doom. The artfulness is only amplified by the authorís decision to unspool the entire novel through a seven-year-oldís eyes, which robs Roth of his usual libidinous avenue into the consciousness of his characters." - Ross Douthat, Policy Review
- "What readers will discover, however, is Roth's most powerful work to date. Confounding and illuminating, enraging and discomfiting, imaginative and utterly -- terrifyingly -- believable, The Plot Against America is an exercise in speculative history that becomes speculation itself. After all, Roth says, they're really the same thing" - Daniel Handler, San Francisco Chronicle
- "The Plot Against America collides autobiography with speculative history, and the history comes off worse. (...) Roth is superb as ever on the ferocious, kitchen-table disputes and the half-lies of family life. But the "history" wears us down. We are force-fed great chunks of expository prose that aren't quite in the register of the boy then nor of the man now (.....) The Plot Against America is a minor addition to the Roth canon, but is none the less welcome. Roth's lesser works are better than many others' masterpieces." - David Flusfeder, The Telegraph
- "Harmonising this witty but sombre fantasy with the naturalistic foreground was clearly a challenge; I'd say Roth pulls it off. As you'd expect, the issues raised aren't treated simplistically, and Roth contrives ambiguous fates for several key cast members. Better put together than The Human Stain, The Plot Against America is another frighteningly intense performance from a novelist in his early 70s." - Christopher Tayler, The Telegraph
- "Page by page it is never less than alive. Yet it does not -- once past its initial, one-sentence high concept -- have quite the jaw-dropping effect of Rothís other late novels, and this may, paradoxically, be an effect of the subject itself. For though Roth often works by making us shake our heads in disbelief, this book demands the very opposite." - Michael Gorra, Times Literary Supplement
- "The writing is brilliant when the focus is on the Roths and their neighborhood and what it meant to be a working-class Jew when there were more Jewish gangsters than rich Jews. But Roth lapses into melodrama when he tries to tie up all the loose ends in such a hurry that he fails to explain how another presidential election was held in 1942." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
- "It may be the saddest book Roth has written and the most frightening." - Gabriel Brownstein, The Village Voice
- "What does this all add up to ? Less than one would have hoped. The gap between the larger world of President Lindbergh and young Phil's narration in Newark is simply too vast to bridge. And the spiraling implausibility of the plot breaks faith with the reader." - Thomas Fleming, Wall Street Journal
- "(H)uge, inflammatory, painfully moving (.....) It may well be his best, and it may well arouse more controversy than all the rest combined. (...) That Roth has written The Plot Against America in some respects as a parable for our times seems to me inescapably and rather regrettably true." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
- "Im Kern handelt dieser Roman nicht von Charles Lindbergh, nicht vom "German Bund", nicht von den Nazis und nicht vom Ku-Klux-Klan. Er handelt von den komplizierten, neurotischen Menschen, die von diesen Mächten als Opfer auserkoren wurden." - Hannes Stein, Die Welt
- "Schade, dass Roth dieses radikal desillusionistische Buch am Ende durch seine Mutlosigkeit ruiniert." - Evelyn Finger, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Plot Against America envisions history taking a slightly different turn between 1940 and 1942.
The events are recounted as seen through the eyes of 'Philip Roth', just seven years old when the events described in the book begin to unfold, living with his family in a Jewish neighbourhood in Newark.
The novel imagines Charles Lindbergh running against and defeating Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 American presidential elections on a platform promising to keep the United States out of the World War ("Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war", as he succinctly puts the choice).
His pro-German and arguably anti-Semitic leanings are cause for great concern in the Roth household (and among Jews generally), and the book chronicles the slow transformation of the nation around them in those years.
Philip's father, an insurance agent, is outraged and deeply concerned by the rise of Lindbergh, but continues to have some faith in the democratic institutions that made America great.
The family does make some contingency plans -- like opening a bank account in Canada, so that they would have some money there if they felt they had to flee (as a few other Jewish families do early on) -- but otherwise try to lead pretty much the same life as usual.
The younger generation reacts in a variety of ways: Philip's cousin Alvin, who lived with the Roths for several years, goes to Canada to fight on the Allied side in Europe (with tragic results).
Philip's older brother, Sandy -- twelve in 1940 -- is co-opted by the regime, unwilling to believe it is bad and seeing opportunities that he eagerly embraces.
And there's also Philip's aunt, his mother's sister, Evelyn, who gets involved (and eventually marries) Lindbergh's court-Jew, Rabbi Bengelsdorf.
Bengelsdorf is responsible for the Office of American Absorbtion, "inviting Jews to enter as far into the national life as they like".
Sandy gets to spend a summer on a Kentucky farm through the programme, but his father remains deeply suspicious of both the motives and the methods of the administration.
It certainly looks like a slippery slope, as it doesn't take too long before the father is offered an 'opportunity' to move the family from Newark to the heartland permanently .....
The Plot Against America offers a neat, creepy alternate-history.
Philip's largely innocent eyes see only some of what is happening -- an effective way of conveying sweeping political changes and history-in-the-making that, in its detail, could be overwhelming.
He is not a naïve narrator -- the book is written from a mature, knowing perspective that does fill in some of the detail that the child of the time could not have understood -- but allowing him to recount the story makes it a personal one, and it is the family-detail, the domestic disputes and concerns, that give the book a particularly convincing feel.
Roth is also particularly good at capturing the child's confusion and impotence -- and his reactions, as when he tries to run away or escape, or how he interprets the actions of his elders.
(An odd choice is the occasional mention of events that occur decades later -- what became of Alvin, for example, or a brief mention of Robert Kennedy's assasination on 4 June, 1968.
It is an awkward form of reassurance from relatively early on that, even if things do not exactly turn out well (RFK still gets shot), the reader knows there will be a return to normalcy or at least to the familiar, that the nightmare unfolding on these pages will be of limited duration and effect.)
For a long time Sandy can still believe: "But nothing is happening in America, nothing", but eventually his father is proved right: the country has changed, very much for the worse.
A political challenge to Lindbergh leads to an assassination, and then suddenly all hell breaks loose.
And it's here that the book takes a very odd turn, recounting the events of those fateful days in summary-descriptions 'Drawn from the Archives of Newark's Newsreel Theater', a day-by-day account of the catastrophe and then deliverance.
Rushed, it doesn't have the same plausibility as the rest of the so carefully built-up book (and in the final possible explanation that's then offered sounds almost entirely unbelievable).
Roth takes readers close to the abyss, but then pulls them back from it with a hard jerk.
The fable and its moral (it could happen here) are undermined by his unwillingness to really consider it; good triumphs over evil so quickly, easily, and almost arbitrarily that the reader doesn't know what to believe any longer.
The sense is that Roth simply became afraid of what he had posited, that it hit too close to home, and too hard, and so he shied away from it.
Young Philip claims innocence was lost -- "never would I be able to revive that unfazed sense of security first fostered in a little child by a big, protective republic and his ferociously responsible parents" -- but that almost seems the only price that was paid (and it seems almost trivial, a slightly more dramatic (but not extraordinarily traumatic) coming of age story than most).
There was much more to explore here, and for quite a while Roth seemed willing to undertake that task -- before ultimately turning tail.
Exceptionally well written, The Plot Against America is an always gripping read.
An excellent portrait of a family in troubled times, its main weaknesses lie in how it treats the genie it lets out of the bottle.
Roth has the excuse of the young child's perspective to explain some of the superficiality of the book -- blacks, for example, practically don't figure at all in the book and the racism (and laws) against that group are essentially completely ignored, the book generally limited to a specifically Jewish slice of life.
And the quick historical turnaround is particularly less than convincing, and at odds with the rest of the book.
In backing off so suddenly from the explosive subject matter, The Plot Against America is a bit of a disappointment, but it is still an exceptional book.
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The Plot Against America:
Other books by Philip Roth under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
American author Philip Roth (1933-2018) wrote many highly acclaimed works and won numerous literary prizes.
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© 2005-2018 the complete review
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