The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

January 14, 2013 at 07:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , , )


Perhaps no genre has been sullied by the feet of so many slipshod hacks as the genre of alternate history. Of all the vast morass of “genre fiction” (that is, popular fiction written around a literary trope specifically for a saturated market), it is possible to find excellent science fiction, or skilfully-written romances. Historical fiction and fantasy from masterful pens stands proud amongst the tidal waves of bad imitations. But explicitly state that a book is an alternate history, and it will almost certainly be no good at all.

Perhaps it is the tired habit of trotting out dozens of cameo appearances by characters who happened to share a time period. Maybe the temptation proves too great to bore the reader with a litany of improbable events that make “this” history distinct from what really happened: and there are few things more horrifying than an historical lecture by an amateur who thinks he knows everything. Perhaps it is an undiscovered physical constant, that an author declaring, “I think I shall write an alternate history” automatically churns out something dreadful.

“Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate–just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love–and so his nomination by the Republicans to run against Roosevelt in 1940 assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.”

-The Plot Against America

Philip Roth is by no means a novice writer, nor is he a talentless hack. But tragically, this constant seems to apply to him as well. It really is too bad. Most of The Plot Against America is a tragic and dysfunctional narrative about a struggling working class family. There really is no reason why President Lindbergh has to put in an appearance at all. In fact for that reason alone, Roth actually succeeds in telling a very very good story. There is some excellent tension between the characters, and Roth even blindsides the reader to a degree in shuffling the cousin and the father and the elder brother in and out of the “villain” and “hero” boxes. Unreliable narrators are always fun to read, and unreliable characters even more so: the pettiness of heroes and the nobility of antiheroes is subtly depicted, and makes for excellent reading.

Here is an excellent piece of advice. Upon reading this book, when you reach page 300 (or thereabouts), stop. The final hundred pages contain a confused and incredibly bland denouement, written in much the same style as one might expect in a dull newspaper. Roth has been accused by some reviewers of pulling out a deus ex machina, but this is unfair to writers who use deus ex machinae. He pulls out at least three of them, and piles them up in a precarious and pointless mess. The whole ending reeks of a publisher’s deadline, or of a writer’s indecision. Incidentally, the whole ending is also the part where Roth plummets irretrievably into the alternate-history pitfall of dully explaining a convoluted and meaningless (in the context of the rest of his story) timeline.

Not a recommended read, and definitely not for finishing.


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