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Philip Roth and the Dangers of Acquiescence

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I’m already behind. Deep into January and I’m about two books behind. Recently I wrote a piece for Blogcritics in which I discussed my 2010 resolution to read almost all of Philip Roth’s books. Starting nowhere in particular, I just completed The Plot Against America, and it was so nearly perfect, so structurally well put together — sentence to sentence, section to section — that I had to read large parts of it a second time. That’s how good the book is, and, I now know, that’s how good most of the books will be.

I can say that because I “know” it to be true from commentators wide and far on Roth’s body of work. And I know it to be true because of the pure genius of The Plot Against America. Writers exist who have only one good, maybe even great book in them (think Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a National Book Award winner—which beat out, stunningly, Don DeLillo’s Underworld). But that’s clearly not Roth.

One third the way through The Counterlife and I know his is a recurring genius, book to book. Which is not to say they all are truly perfect, without flaws. The Plot Against America is nearly flawless, and other novels will rise above lesser ones in his oeuvre, but Roth’s genius must surely be as consistent as it is prolific.

In brief, here’s the plot: through an extraordinary aberration Charles Lindbergh the aviator, who is also a Nazi sympathizer, succeeds Franklin Roosevelt as President of the United States just as World War II is developing. And Lindbergh, who is also a thinly veiled anti-Semite, stays out of Hitler’s way as he rampages across Europe and yet at home engages in a subtle war against Jews in order to assimilate them into America’s larger populace.

The Plot Against America (2005) was reviewed and praised extensively. Additional praise from me is not necessary.

What does feel important to do is to reference what The Plot Against America is about. The easiest way to express that is simply to say “everything,” which is nearly true. It is so expansive — it’s a faux memoir, a fantasy really — that it leaves few themes behind. It’s about family, being a child and sibling, the adult world colliding with the world of the child, the dangers of political and social acquiescence, Jewishness, the illusion of status and social standing, sex, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles Lindberg, did I say Jewishness, alienation, fidelity to one’s convictions, dislocation, and death. And that only scratches the surface of this fanciful and grand novel.

I resolved well, this year. Having read my first Roth novel, I know I will follow up on my goal, to a greater or lesser extent. And since reading and good books can change a life, then I will be different in 11 months — not necessarily better or worse, but changed, something in some small or large way other than I am now.

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