On Philip Roth, Trump and the terror of the unforeseen

Following news that the great American author has died at the age of 85, we republish an essay by New Statesman editor Jason Cowley on the writer’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America.

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Late style, Edward Said wrote in an essay published shortly before his death, “has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without realising the contradictions between them”. Philip Roth’s new novel, a counter-factual satire in which the pioneering aviator Charles A Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and begins to turn America, as an ally of Nazi Germany and Japan, into a quasi-fascist state, is an exercise in disenchantment and pleasure. In style and tone, it is recognisably the work of a novelist entering the final period of his writing career, peering back through the smoke of a long, fractious but absolutely dedicated life at the person he once was. The novel is unashamedly nostalgic — and this is the great pleasure of it, for both writer and reader.

Roth returns once more to the mercantile neighbourhood of his childhood in Newark, New Jersey. This time we follow him directly into the family home as, in an act of imaginative reclamation, he introduces us to his father, Herman, an insurance agent for Metropolitan Life, his resilient mother, Bess, and his elder brother, Sandy. The domestic detail of Roth’s own lower-middle-class, war-shadowed childhood is rendered exactly in clear, plain prose. But the historical circumstances are different — and this is the true disenchantment of the novel because, as the narrator (the young Philip Roth) tells us at the outset, a “perpetual fear” presides over these memoirs. That fear is anti-Semitism, and the precariousness of life for a minority people persecuted and menaced by their own government.

If Roth’s great trilogy of novels about post-war American society — American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000) — as well as the novella The Dying Animal (2001), which served as a coda to the trilogy, have a unifying theme, it is to do with how little control the individual has over the inexorable forces of history, and is remorselessly tethered to them. In each of the three novels an aspirant everyman, buoyant on a steady stream of American optimism and expectation, is humbled and then destroyed after becoming entangled in a net of public politics and private deceit. They are destroyed by what Roth in this new book calls the “terror of the unforeseen”: the unexpected event, the chance occurrence, the unimagined catastrophe. Only in retrospect could it be said that history has a direction and meaning. The present as it is lived never feels like that; it is discontinuous, contingent. In truth, most of us live with a sense, even if only subconsciously, of the terror of the unforeseen, the event over which we have no control but which ineradicably alters the direction of our lives.

In The Plot Against America, the unforeseen is the election of Charles Lindbergh as president after he defeats Roosevelt. In 1927 Lindbergh, a former airmail pilot, became at the age of 25 the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic in his single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St Louis. He flew from New York to Paris without a radio or navigation aids, and his flight took him nearly 34 hours.

In many ways, he did more than cross the Atlantic on that historic flight: he flew straight into the future and became, as J G Ballard has written, a reluctant but authentic international celebrity of our emerging consumer and entertainment culture, “the admired and welcome guest of kings, presidents and prime ministers”. For a period after that, Lindbergh had no peace: he was harried, pursued, adored. In 1932, his baby son was kidnapped; the story was a news sensation. The baby was later found dead, his body mauled by animals, in woods near the Lindbergh home.

In retreat, Lindbergh moved to England, from where he travelled to Germany. There he was thrilled by the pseudo-modernity and technological determinism of the Nazi state. In July 1936, Lindbergh attended a lunch hosted in his honour by Hermann Goering and was thereafter an esteemed guest at the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics. “Germany,” Lindbergh wrote at the time, “is the most interesting nation in the world today, and she is attempting to find a solution for some of our most fundamental problems.” On another trip to Germany in October 1938, Lindbergh would receive a medal of commendation from Goering, “by order of der Fuhrer”.

On his return to the US in 1939, Lindbergh, a determined Republican isolationist, campaigned against American intervention in what was after all, he said, a European war. At an America First Committee rally in Des Moines in 1941 (Roth moves the speech to 1940), he spoke of American Jews as “other peoples”, and warned Americans not to allow the “natural passions and prejudices” of Jews to lead “our country to destruction”.

You will learn very little about the true history of Charles Lindbergh from Roth’s novel. To Roth, he is less a historical figure — the “last naive hero”, as Ballard calls him — than a convenient device, a figure through which Roth can invert the founding ideal of the United States, transforming this proud vessel of migrations and new beginnings into a dystopia, the worst possible world for Jews. And Lindbergh is never more than an absent presence in the novel, someone heard on the radio or discussed in anxious conversation among senior family members.

Yet his influence on American society is all-pervasive: he flies to Iceland to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler, he establishes a national Office of American Absorption through which he forces Jews out of the cities and into new settlements in the Midwest and the South, and he creates a society in which pogroms and politically sponsored killings are not only possible, but desirable.

In one early scene, the best in the book, Herman Roth takes his family on a trip to Washington, DC. Anti-Semitism is already biting; the Roths, despite having pre-booked their rooms, are turned away from their hotel, because they are obviously Jews — an enraging and humiliating experience for Roth pere, but an echo, too, of how African Americans have been treated throughout American history. Meanwhile, out on the street, the young Roth boys look up into the sky to see a low-flying Lockheed Interceptor aircraft: it is their new president out on his daily solo flying mission, simultaneously a figure of fear and fascination.

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, too much over-elaborate scene-setting. It is Roth at his most benign and forgiving, of his parents, of his extended family, of his tortured relationship with his own Jewishness. Roth Man as hectoring raconteur, as stand-up comedian, as tyrannical monologist is absent. Instead, the tone is one of heightened resignation — and Roth’s family and their fellow Jews, following the mysterious disappearance of President Lindbergh in an unexplained aviation accident at the end of the book, are somehow redeemed by benevolent destiny as the natural order of things is restored, as in a fairy tale.

What are we to make of all this? Indeed, what are we to make more generally of the late style of Philip Roth? Before the publication of this book, so unexpected and reflective, one would have said that it was characterised by rage against decline and death, and the realisation that, as the fallen “Swede”, the central character of American Pastoral, must discover, “the worst lesson that life can teach is that life makes no sense”. But this book is different. Sparer and less exalted in style, it is Roth’s homage to his family: his own black-and-white home movie, his Radio Days. Reading it, one thinks also of the late fictions of Saul Bellow, so elegantly reduced compared with the turbocharged exuberance of his middle years; of the pared-down austerities of late VS Naipaul or Muriel Spark. One thinks even of the late romances of Shakespeare, with their interconnecting themes of loss and separation, of reconciliation and forgiveness, and their belief in the redemptive capacity of art. This is a belief Roth evidently shares as he returns, again and again, to wander through the rooms of the former family home in Newark, and conjures his parents into life all over again, in an age of fear.

(2004)

Postscript

The election of Donald Trump as US president led many of us to read or re-read The Plot Against America. Indeed, it became one of the defining texts of the first year of the Trump presidency, not least because of Trump’s isolationist America First rhetoric. David Simon, creator of The Wire, is adapting the novel for a six-part television mini-series.

Reflecting on the nativist turn in American politics, Roth, who has died, aged 85, said: “No one I know of has foreseen an America like the one we live in today. No one could have imagined that the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the USA, the most debasing of disasters, would appear not, say, in the terrifying guise of an Orwellian Big Brother but in the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon.”

Of his approach to fiction, Roth once commented: “Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life.” He was fascinated by doubleness and deception, hence all those metafictional tricks he played and the alter-egos through whom he spoke. His protagonists invariably shared much of his own early biography – the Newark boyhood, the conflicted Jewish identity, the troubles with women – as well as his predilections and prejudices. Several of his novels feature characters named Philip Roth, as in The Plot Against America – the best of them, I think, being Operation Shylock (1993), set partly in Israel and exploring the period when Roth was recovering from depression and a breakdown after heart surgery. Roth is adept at simultaneously asserting the veracity of the stories he tells while seeking to undermine them by drawing attention to their artificiality. His strategy is one of complete disclosure interwoven with complete disavowal.

Roth said that there was at least one significant difference between Charles Lindbergh and Trump. “It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency. Lindbergh, historically, was the courageous young pilot who in 1927, for the first time, flew nonstop across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. He did it in 33.5 hours in a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, thus making him a kind of 20th-century Leif Ericson, an aeronautical Magellan, one of the earliest beacons of the age of aviation. Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.