Book Blitz

Why the Novel Isn’t Allegorical, or Sentimental

Dear Judith,

Well, by the time I finished The Plot Against America, I wound up feeling that it was neither sentimental nor allegorical about present-day American politics. The reason it isn’t sentimental and the reason it isn’t allegorical are related to each other—the link having to do (surprise!) with Roth’s Jewishness.

Although, in the early going, Roth does give us a golden—uncharacteristically golden, if you’ve been reading his fiction all along—picture of his old neighborhood in Newark, after a couple of hundred pages we’ve been plunged so deeply into various horrors that it would be impossible to make a persuasive case that The Plot Against America is a sentimental book. It’s sentimental about one thing, lower-middle-class American Jewish culture of the interwar period, but in the aggregate it’s very, very dark. I’m thinking in particular of Roth’s extensive treatment of two minor characters: Alvin, the bitter veteran-turned-gangster, and Sheldon, the pathetic orphaned boy. There were passages about these characters that literally made me squirm in my seat with discomfort, or have to set the book aside for a while and take a walk. Remember, for example, the many highly specific discussions of Alvin’s suppurating stump, left behind when his leg was amputated?

Writers are human, so even a genius like Roth cannot have an unlimited repertoire to work with. His palette of settings is, increasingly, Jewish Northern New Jersey in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s and not much else. He doesn’t do protagonists who are, as they say at the Census Bureau, “heads of household,” and he doesn’t do successful, or even workable, intimate relationships. He doesn’t do happiness, contentment, or fulfillment; one might even perversely argue that he presents deep discomfort in the world as the Jewish condition merely as a proxy, because that is really either the human condition, or the Roth condition, or both.

Somewhere along the line—Patrimony, maybe?—Roth began presenting his culture of origin in a positive rather than negative light. But since he doesn’t do contentment, this shift in attitude has presented him with the problem of how to continue achieving the characteristic Roth emotional condition, which hasn’t changed. The solution, in book after book recently, but never more dramatically than in The Plot Against America, has been to externalize. The source of that towering Rothian discomfort (which is no less deep—possibly deeper, in fact) is the nature of the outside world, not the nature of the Jewish world. Using a preadolescent boy as his protagonist, in addition to being historically and autobiographically convenient, allows him to achieve a note of deep fear and horror at what lies beyond the familiar world of family and neighborhood, and to convey an uncomplicated love of home. Who didn’t have those feelings, at that age? On the very first day of Slate’s existence, I published an essay here quoting the scene in Portnoy’s Complaint where young Alex leaves his neighborhood to gaze longingly at shikses ice-skating. Roth was sort of kidding, but by now the goyim who live beyond the borders of the neighborhood are, with a few exceptions, both horrifying and terrifying, not alluring. The enemy is without, not within—and therefore is Christian, not Jewish.

I wound up thinking of The Plot Against America as a book less about the Holocaust, despite the historical timing, than about pogroms. Indeed, Roth uses the word “pogroms” repeatedly. His neighborhood in Newark is a premodern-feeling place, a shtetl rather than a ghetto: a strapped, proud, traditional, bound-together village subject to occasional violent invasion in supposed retribution for crimes that never occurred, and conditioned to see any leaving of the community as physically, to say nothing of psychologically, dangerous. One should bear in mind that in Newark in the 1930s, pogroms were anything but ancient history. They were just 30 years distant and would have been deeply embedded in just about everybody’s consciousness through a direct family connection. The universal Jewish fear of pogroms is the main nerve Roth touches in The Plot Against America—not whatever fears his readers may have of the Bush administration, which are necessarily much shallower (except to the extent that they are expressions of the older, deeper fears). Anyway, Roth’s Lindbergh, distant, amiable, and passive, isn’t anything like the president we’ve gotten to know during this campaign.

But I shouldn’t really have said “universal fear,” should I? I read The Plot of America with special avidity because of many personal connections I have to the story. I spent the summers of my small boyhood staying with my grandparents in Perth Amboy, N.J., 20 miles from Newark—occupying the old room of my uncle Tom London, who’s exactly Roth’s age, which was filled with the kind of 1940s boys’ tchotchkes that Roth lovingly describes in The Plot Against America. Perth Amboy’s leading citizen was David T. Wilentz, whose name comes up in The Plot Against America because of his earlier role as prosecutor of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man convicted of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. More to the point, though, for our next round, a secondary Jewish nerve that Roth expertly touches is the very bad feeling between the Russian Jews and the German Jews, the landsmen and the yekkes, his (and your) people and my people. Roth is rather lustily on the Russian side, because of the Germans’ insistence that one need not, as a Jew, live in constant fear and dread. (The German Jews are personified in The Plot Against America by Philip’s relative-by-marriage, the prominent, Southern born, assimilationist Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf—”rascalsville” (who reminded me a bit of my own relative-by-marriage, the prominent, Southern-born, anti-Zionist Rabbi Julian Feibelman of New Orleans). But my people weren’t wrong about that, were we? When has this wonderful country ever, outside the pages of a novel, let us down?