Lionel Trilling made his reputation as a critic at "the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet." He coined the phrase during the 1940s, when John Dos Passos, Robert Penn Warren, John Steinbeck, and Mary McCarthy were just a few of the American writers trying to reconcile the political placard and the novel though he might as well have been looking ahead to 1967, when Norman Mailer, fresh on the heels of Why Are We in Vietnam?, marched on the Pentagon and came back with The Armies of the Nightˇa rollicking masterpiece of New Journalism that sought to contain, as the novel once had, the entire predicament of an era. "The death of America rides in on the smog," Mailer wrote, and while he was referring to the moral quandary of Vietnam, the sentiment falls squarely in the tradition of the American political novel from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: or, Life among the Lowly (1852) to Upton Sinclair's denunciation of the petroleum economy Oil! (1927) to Sinclair Lewis's anti-fascist provocation It Can't Happen Here (1935). A reforming spirit has always animated the American novel during times of social upheaval and political struggle. In recent years, political commentary has more often been expressed in journalism, on television, in dramatic and documentary film. What is Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 if not the definitive political treatise on America during the Bush years? (His opinions are spun into narrative with an outrage that would have made Upton Sinclair proud.) No living novelist could ever hope to achieve Moore's immediacy and influenceˇwitness the tempest-in-a-teapot surrounding Nicholson Baker's brief for assassinating President Bush, Checkpoint. Indeed, the novel in America has begun to resort to the election-year tactic of indulging the needs of individual voting blocks, one reader at a time. Even the slew of "large-canvas" novels by Don DeLillo and others follow Trilling's advice to Hemingway: "You have no duty, no responsibility. Literature, in a political sense, is not in the least important. Wherever the sword is drawn it is mightier than the pen. Whatever you can do as a man, you can win no wars as an artist."
Back in the echo chamber of the '90s, while Americans gazed up in rapture at the limitless expanse of the technology bubble, and our elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, showed an unhealthy fascination with the private life of a president from Hot Springs, Arkansas, the political novel in America, that relic of a time when politics still "mattered," was being revived through the tireless efforts of a single protagonist: Nathan Zuckerman. Who could have predicted, in 1983, when Philip Roth's most vivid alter ego hit the medical textbooks and plunged his arms into a bin of soiled hospital linens at the end of The Anatomy Lesson (the second volume in his first trilogy, the sublimely self-referential Zuckerman Bound), threatening to go to medical school, that he would re-emerge a decade later as a citizen-soldier ruthlessly examining post-war America in American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)? There were clues, of course, as to what his maker had in mind: First, in The Prague Orgy (1985), Zuckerman traveled behind the Iron Curtain in pursuit of a manuscript of Yiddish short stories, and, once there among the writers and political dissidents, rejected the sexual advances of Olga in favor of listening to the story of her life ("I am only ears"). In one indelible passage Zuckerman describes his vision of the Jewish homeland and how he had always imagined it resembling Communist Prague: an ancient, dark, neglected city filled with people telling stories and jokes about their misfortunes.
That such things can happenˇthere's the moral of the storiesˇthat such things happen to me, to him, to her, to us. That is the national anthem of the Jewish homeland. By all rights, when you hear someone there begin telling a storyˇwhen you see the Jewish faces mastering anxiety and feigning innocence and registering astonishment at their own fortitudeˇyou ought to stand and put a hand to your heart.
This is bracing, moral, generous stuff. And in The Counterlife (1986), during one of the many long discussions about Zionism and Zuckerman's ambivalent relationship to Israel, he makes a confession that startles even himself: "Though I don't admit this back in New York . . . I'm a little idealistic about Americaˇmaybe the way that Shuki's [his friend, Ben-Gurion's press officer] a little idealistic about Israel." Later in the same novel, Zuckerman's gentile wife Maria makes a larger point about Nathan's fictional project when she tells him, in the midst of this multilayered, tricultural novel in which adultery, Zionism, European anti-Semitism, fatherhood, and the perils of authorship compete for thematic supremacy: "This artistic dedication of yours is slightly provincial, you know. It's far more metropolitan to have a slightly anarchic view of life. Yours only seems anarchic and isn't at all. About standards you're something of a hick. Thinking things matter." Zuckerman's visit to the West Bank and his first bout with impotence are further signs that he's beginning to care about more than just getting off and knocking out another novel for the bookshelf.
Despite all of the above, the ambition, scope, and civic awareness of Zuckerman's late-'90s trilogy of novels has been a continual astonishment. It's almost as if, through Roth's creation, in 1995, of his most unrepentant fornicator and debaser of all things shiny, bright, and beautiful, Mickey Sabbath, unleashed upon the world in Sabbath's Theater, Zuckerman had been relieved of the burden of his own bad intentions, his own habit of wreaking havoc in the lives of his loved ones for the sake of art. Instead of being the catalyst for metafiction, Zuckerman would let the history of postwar America visit him in conversation with his elders. He would listen to their ailments and, whenever he needed more information, investigate. The same Zuckerman who had once taken such delight in mocking the conventional pieties of the Jewish family in America (see his account of taking Anne Frank home to meet his parents in The Ghost Writer ) had become an archivist of the very lives he used to delight in confounding. Zuckerman, the famous novelist with the revolving bedroom door, had retreated into the countryside, unattached, to write his books and listen to a nation's guilty conscience in a leaky adult diaper. Not even Viagra can turn him back into the protagonist he was before he had his prostate taken out.
"He could not fucking die," ends Sabbath's Theater on a note of rage, with Sabbath wrapped in an American flag from his brother's military funeral in 1944. "How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here." Sabbath's Theater charts the final reckoning of Mickey Sabbath, a lewd puppeteer crippled with arthritis who, had he chosen the safer artistic path, could have had a lucrative career "inside Big Bird." The American flag is a symbol of the standards Sabbath tried to undress with his Indecent Theater during the '50s, Ó la Lenny Bruce, and his childhood idyll on the Jersey Shore that he lost forever when his brother Morty was shot down over the Philippines. He loves the flag for the individual freedoms it shelters and hates the flag for its false promises. The tortured protagonist in Roth's next novel, Swede Levov, is Sabbath's opposite in every wayˇand American Pastoral is a hymn to the myth of American progress. Swede is the idol of Weequahic High in Newark, first of his kind to assimilate into the goyish world of sports stardom. His status as "household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews" is made necessary by World War II: Rather than cowed or embittered by the weight of his community's aspirations, Swede develops a "golden gift for responsibility." He serves in the Marines overseas and returns home to join the family glove-making business, marry a former Miss New Jersey, and move into a picturesque stone house in horse country to live out his American dream. But a "sliver off the comet of the American chaos" finds his daughter, Merry, in the form of revolutionary politicsˇand his stuttering girl with an Audrey Hepburn scrapbook is transformed into the "Rimrock Bomber," a student radical in the mold of Bernadine Dohrn. Swede can begin to understand, if only dimly, his daughter's hatred of her family, but Merry's all-consuming rage against America is beyond him. "Hate America? Why, he lived in America the way he lived inside his own skin. All the pleasures of his younger years were American pleasures, all that success and happiness had been American, and he need no longer keep his mouth shut about it just to defuse her ignorant hatred. The loneliness he would feel as a man without all his American feelings. The longing he would feel if he had to live in another country. Yes, everything that gave meaning to his accomplishments had been American. Everything he loved was here."
I Married a Communist, the most underrated book in Roth's second Zuckerman trilogy, steps further back in time to another period of political upheaval in the US, the McCarthy era. "Iron Rinn," aka Ira Ringold, from Newark's tough First Ward, a radio actor on The Free and the Brave and Abraham Lincoln impersonator in the public schools, is dragged into a family melodrama with his famous wife, Eve Frame, that ends with his exposure as a Communistˇand his ruin. Ira's story is told by his elderly brother, Murray, Zuckerman's first high-school English teacher in Newark and a paragon of moral intelligence. "'Cri-ti-cal think-ing,' Mr. Ringold said, using his knuckles to rap out each of the syllables on his desktop, 'ˇthere is the ultimate subversion.'" Along with its meticulous re-creation of the Communist subculture and the political life of the '40s and '50s, the novel dramatizes Zuckerman's apprenticeship as a malleable young writer, torn between a future of "committed" art (the excerpts from his first radio play, The Stooge of Torquemada, are brilliant in their clumsiness and hackneyed idiom) and a future committed to art alone. "How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance?" his freshman-year professor Leo Glucksman demands after reading the radio play. "How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task . . . Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being." The success of Roth's political novels from the '90s lies in his own faithfulness to realism's larger task as he parses the ideologies that drive and deride his characters; even politics, in the end, achieves a kind of nuance by being traced, like a character, over the fullness of time. Zuckerman has given up his fascination with the bedroom to wield his artistry, with a bullhorn, on a soapbox.
No one would call The Human Stain a novel of great subtletyˇRoth marches his characters into nuance rather giving them a nudgeˇand it's the most flawed, the most hectoring and hasty, of the novels in the trilogy. Faunia, the-not-quite-illiterate milkmaid at the center of a small-town sex scandal, never coheres as a credible soul and her ex-husband, the troubled Vietnam vet Les Farley, doesn't transcend stereotype until the novel's final scene. The twin ideologies under the lash here are identity politics and deconstruction, conflated (as they often are on campus) in the figure of Delphine Rouxˇan opportunistic professor at Athena College in the Berkshires with a barren private life. Coleman Silk's vilification after using the word "spooks" in his classroom to describe a group of absent students, one of whom happens to be black, is, in many ways, the most vigorously imagined dilemma facing Roth's three fallen men. As a fair-skinned black man passing for Jewish, he is a living refutation of the culture that destroys his career and his carefully constructed life, of an ideology that says all of us can be summed up by the boxes we check on official forms. The practice of narrative realism, the devising and deployment of characters in all their ripeness toward an aesthetic end, becomes, within this context, a political act. The Human Stain's depiction of the "ecstasy of sanctimony" during the Clinton impeachment and, on a smaller stage, at Athena, is priceless, as is its audaciously conceived protagonistˇSilk is as radical in his destructive choices as the "Rimrock Bomber," and all the more convincing for the way he ambles into a completely invented life. The Human Stain is a novel about America's love affair with the Big Lie, the unbridgeable gap between private truths and the public narratives that communities depend on (a natural subject for a novelist). "It was the summer in America when the nausea returned," Roth writes in a passage that should be inscribed in the dome of Congress like the famous quote from Gatsby in the Gates mansion, "when the joking didn't stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn't stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one's children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed on the nation and, on both sides, people wondered, 'Why are we so crazy?'" In pairing this public tumult with the almost ritual undoing of a private life, and sending Zuckerman, with Silk as his guide, through every contour of a dream so real it could be ours, and yet so horrible it couldn't possibly beˇcould it?ˇRoth takes the American novel to a place it has rarely gone since fiction was overwhelmed by the roiling meta-fiction of American life.
* * *
More than forty years ago now, in 1961, Philip Roth, with only Goodbye Columbus under his belt, published a remarkable essay in Commentary magazine called "Writing American Fiction." In it he narrates the story of a murder trial that captivated Chicago and made celebritiesˇcharacters in the public consciousness, in other wordsˇout of a dishwasher named Benny Bedwell and his two wayward victims, Pattie and Babs Grimes. Roth goes on to describe his "professional envy" of the figures who populate the nation's public life: Charles Van Doren, Roy Cohn, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon. He describes watching the Nixon/Kennedy debates on television and feeling so astonished by the spectacle that he begins to "wish that someone had invented it," if not himselfˇif the spectacle could be explained away as fiction then "it was not real and with us" and, hence, it was no longer his responsibility as an artist bound to write about his country. "It is the tug of reality, its mystery and magnetism, that leads one into the writing of fiction," Roth posits, and adds: "[W]hat then when one is not mystified, but stupefied? not drawn but repelled?" The answer for the American writer, Roth goes on to illustrate, is to leave his isolation chamber of his study and become an active participant in the issues of the day, like Norman Mailer, or to retreat from this strange new reality altogether and take refuge in historical fictions and the quietude of a self-referential literary style. In either case the end result is the same: The writer, at his peril, loses "the community as subject." The essay ends with a picture of the American writer climbing down into a bunker, like the hero of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and listening to the lower frequencies in isolation while the Grand Guignol rages on outside. One marvels at some novelists' ingenuity in locating divergent routes out of that bunker in the four decades since Roth's essay was first publishedˇfrom Revolutionary Road to Song of Solomon and The Executioner's Song, from American Pastoral to Mason & Dixon to John Henry Daysˇjust as one laments the overabundance of fictions set in an America where the community never extends beyond the immediate family and our society plays no role at all.
Roth's new novel, The Plot Against America, is a departure from all his previous work and a political creature of another order. It is also, unfortunately, an example of what can happen to even the most accomplished novelists when they find themselves at Trilling's crossroads and decide to take a definitive turnˇin this case, into liberal orthodoxy. A bitter portrait of life in Newark during the briefˇand disastrousˇpresidency of aviator Charles Lindbergh, the novel arrives with more than the usual dose of Roth frisson. You look at the coverˇa US postage stamp of Yosemite with a black swastikaˇand think: He did what? You turn it over in your hands and marvel: Only Philip Roth! The novel's chronology runs from June 1940, when, at its national convention in Philadelphia, the Republican Party breaks its deadlock on the twentieth ballot by nominating Lindbergh (who is wearing a flight suit) to run against FDR, until October 1942, when President Lindbergh, flying the Spirit of St. Louis, disappears somewhere between Louisville, Kentucky, and Washington, DC. The chapter headings in the table of contents include helpful dates, such as: "June 1940ŃOctober 1940: Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War." The narrative is followed by a lengthy postscript, which includes an author's note ("The Plot Against America is a work of fiction"), a "true chronology" of the historical figures in the novel (Lindbergh, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Walter Winchell, Fiorello La Guardia), and the full text of a speech that the real Lindbergh delivered in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, in which he argued that Jews were pushing America into the European conflict through "their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government." The key to understanding what Roth means by The Plot Against America lies in the date of Lindbergh's Des Moines speech and in the postscript itselfˇthe first of its kind in Roth's fictionŃŃwhich tells us, perhaps too overtly, that this story of creeping fascism in America is rooted in historical fact.
"Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear," the novel begins, in the retrospective voice of "Philip Roth." "Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of Jews." The landscape of this fear is Weequahic, the oft-fictionalized neighborhood in Newark where the Roths, a "happy family," are living out their modest dreams of good citizenship and progress. Labor defined the lives of the Roths and their neighbors more than being Jewishˇassimilation has stripped the Jews of Weequahic of their accents and their outward habits of piety. They speak in an "American English" that has little in common with the dialects more ethnic Jews speak in New York City. "Israel didn't yet exist," Roth writes, "six million European Jews hadn't yet ceased to exist, and the local relevance of distant Palestine . . . was a mystery to me." Philip, seven, and his older brother, Sandy, pledge allegiance to the flag, watch fireworks on Independence Day, and eat turkey every Thanksgiving. Their father sells insurance for Metropolitan Life and their mother is active in the PTA; in one of the many symbolic moments that substitute for character developmentˇthe novel's appeal to the reader seems almost pre-literate at times, like a pictoral menu at McDonaldsˇshe organizes an annual March of Dimes dance to fall on President Roosevelt's birthday. Lindbergh had once been a hero in their lives, a "martyred titan comparable to Lincoln" after the kidnapping and murder of his son in 1932. Sandy, a budding artist, had even memorialized the aviator in a series of heroic drawingsˇthe talismans of a child living in the thrall of his nation's public life. In the meantime, Lindbergh's visit to Nazi Germany in 1938 and his refusal to return the Service Medal of the German Eagle presented to him by G÷ring have relegated Sandy's idealized drawings to a portfolio under his bed.
This is the clear blue sky over America, Roth seems to be implying, on the day when the airplanes struck. Lindbergh, despite his folksy wisdom and daily patriotic flights over Washington in his Lockheed Interceptor, despite the assurances of the Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf that the aviator visited Nazi Germany as an agent of the US government ("Koshering Lindbergh for the goyim," Philip's cousin Alvin remarks after Bengelsdorf speaks at a Republican rally), turns out to be a Nazi puppetˇfor reasons that, in the interest of maintaining the kind of cheap surprise normally found in glossy-cover paperbacks, I am not at liberty to divulge. On taking office Lindbergh enters into the "Iceland Understanding" with Hitler's Germany, guaranteeing that "this great country will take no part in the war in Europe." He signs the Hawaii Understanding with Imperial Japan. He founds a new government agency, the Office of American Absorption, which places urban Jewish youths on farms in the "heartland" for summer internships under a program called Just Folks and, later, in partnership with Metropolitan Life and other corporations, relocates Jewish families from neighborhoods like Weequahic to cities and small towns where there are no Jews at all. Roth's method here is an inversion of the psychological realism that animates his late, great novels: The turbulence inside characters like Swede Levov and Coleman Silk is extracted and returned to America in the form of a hostile government. The nation becomes the protagonist and the characters, the Roth family of Weequahic, its victims. Struggling for their lives, they are not actors in their own drama like Swede or Iron Rinn so much as they are characters being acted upon by their times.
The Plot Against America is a work of speculative fiction and, as such, Roth has three major tasks to fulfill: He must create a plausible and consistent world; this world must come alive through its characters' eyes; and, it must reveal something unexpected about historical reality by departing from it. In creating a "new" historical reality to illuminate the assumptions of our own time, Roth succeeds with flying colors. I've long suspected that Roth, as a novelist who has returned, again and again, to the domestic complexities of the World War II years, must be uncomfortable with the public discourse around "The Greatest Generation." (Let's not forget the great line from Sabbath's Theater: "He'd rather fuck Drenka, he'd rather fuck anyone, than watch Tom Brokaw.") Skim any magazine or newspaper article about World War II and you will find the phrases "shared sacrifice" and "unanimous support," as if all Americans marched in absolute lockstep to the wishes of a patrician liberal from New York. The Plot Against America reminds us of the isolationist America First Committee, of the fascist and anti-Semitic German-American Bund, of Father Coughlin's hate-filled mob, of Burton K. Wheeler's appeasement strategy and Henry Ford's multi-volume edition of The International Jew. The competing loyalties facing Jewish-Americans during the war years are brought to life again in an inspired print war between the editorial page of the New York Times ("a paper founded and owned by Jews") and the columnist Walter Winchell, who, in the novel, emerges as Lindbergh's most vocal critic on the left and, in a chapter called "The Winchell Riots," a political martyr on the scale of Martin Luther King. This, too, is Americaˇthe real "American berserk," to quote Roth in American Pastoral. Lose the contradictions of the past, Roth warns us, and you might find yourself, in the future, living in an America that you hardly recognize at all.
The book alternates long passages of exposition and historical gloss with scenes of the Roth family's struggle to maintain the assumptions of their pre-Lindbergh lives. Just Folks does precisely what it was meant to by taking Sandy out of his Jewish neighborhood for the summer and returning him a grass-eating hick with contempt for his father's anti-Lindbergh diatribes. Alvin, the Roth's ne'er-do-well cousin, runs off to Canada to fight the war against Hitler on the British side and returns in a wheelchair to frighten and fascinate young Philip with his stump. Aunt Evelyn, the family striver, meets and falls in love with Rabbi Bengelsdorf, now the head of the OAA in Washington, and the family eruption that results has dire consequences for the Roths. The slow, steady pressure exerted on the household is expertly meted out, and the family's confusion as it fracturesˇand the small moments of heroismˇraise the reader's hopes for what is, in the end, an unsatisfying side trip into a world adorned with familiar referents that never quite seems "real," never quite convinces as a plausible alternative to historical fact. The Roths of Weequahic are plunged into a situation that should elevate the reader's pulse, and heighten his awareness, and inspire outrage; and yet . . . the Roths of Weequahic, for the first time in Roth's fiction or non-fiction, have a warmed-over quality. They speak in platitudes at the foot of national monuments instead of speaking their hearts and living representative lives. It's almost as if, having been fictionalized so thoroughly in novel after novel to tell the deepest truths about America, they've revolted and left their prodigal son alone with his feelings for his country and the urgency to write. The Plot Against America reveals more about its author's politics, however laudable, than it does about American life.
To read a single piece of work by Philip Roth is, in more than just a metaphorical sense, to be connected by a network of interests and associations to every one. There are the ties between Philip Roth and Alexander Portnoy from Portnoy's Complaint; Portnoy and David Kepesh from The Breast and, most recently, The Dying Animal; Kepesh and Nathan Zuckerman; Zuckerman and, back to the originator, Philip Roth. There are the ideas that act as hyperlinks leading from book to book: "The pastoral is not my genre," Zuckerman states in The Counterlife (he will make it his genre ten years later); Mickey Sabbath's hate is inverted into Swede Levov's patriotism and recalibrated into Ira Ringold's Communism ("Everything he wanted to change was here") and distilled into the "elixir of [Coleman Silk's] secret," his transformation from a black student on the GI Bill into a Jewish classics professor. Roth's work since 1961 has touched on every solution mentioned in "Writing American Fiction," and while Roth has never run for political office, his coronation as the Philosopher King of Newark is a priori. The Plot Against America shares its setting with so many of its antecedents, it tells the story of the Roth family of Summit Avenue and their fierce love of their country, and yet it sits uneasily beside the books that came beforeˇit's a notion wrapped in Weequahic rather than a work that grew naturally out of this astonishingly fertile patch of ground. All of its audacity, all that makes the novel purposeful ("Audacity must have a purpose," Iron Rinn preaches to Zuckerman, "otherwise it's cheap and facile and vulgar") is contained in the novel's original conception. And this conception, following the argument in the essay above, is the product of a mind repelledˇstupefied, evenˇby the spectacle of a folksy president in a flight suit and a vice president who takes an eerie delight in stoking fear around the country, flashing the crooked smile of a man who's entered into a pact with, well, someone very bad.
There is a plot against America, a real one with targets and objectives we know all too well. That's what keeps us up at night, reading in the dark. It wasn't hatched at home, or by the leader of an enemy state, or by the "axis of evil"ˇit grows in the hearts of the hundreds, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, who would do us harm. That our political leaders have failed so thoroughly to imagine a solution only compounds the problem; yet this failure creates an opening, as well as a series of pitfalls, for the novelist brave enough to take our political dilemma on. It's encouraging to read Roth's early essay with the knowledge that, after a lifetime of dedicated work, he would find a formula for capturing America in all its turmoil and contradiction and achieve, for three novels running, what his younger self had judged to be impossible: writing fiction that wrestles the goliath USA to a draw. One can hardly blame him if, in his zeal to save his country from itself, those same instincts would lead him down a path that can only steer the novel wrong.
Benjamin Anastas is the author of An Underachiever's Diary (Dial, 1998) and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001). A new novella will appear in the Yale Review in early 2005.