No one could accuse Philip Roth of having a lackluster fantasy life. In 1993, for example, Roth spun a big blowsy yarn about, well, himself ; sort of. The Philip Roth who narrates Operation Shylock worked in Athens as an Israeli spy and was fighting over his identity with an anti-Zionist doppelgänger in Jerusalem. "I'm not trying to confuse you," Roth cheekily told an interviewer that year. "This happened. I stepped into a strange hole, which I don't understand to this day."
Fast forward to 2004 and Roth has once again invented one of the strangest third dimensions in American literary history: The Plot Against America. The year is 1940 and 7-year-old protagonist Philip Roth watches in horror as aviator (and anti-Semite) Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency. Lindbergh then proceeds to make a nonaggression pact with Hitler, Jews are forced to relocate and before too long mobs of anti-Semites are roaming the streets.
I spoke to Roth via telephone. Here's what the 71-year-old writer had to say about the book:
Why did you choose "Philip Roth" as your protagonist?
I told myself this when I started this book: Make one change. Just change the 1940 election and then follow out the consequences of it. Therefore I used my family and me. Now, had I invented a family, I would have wound up inventing a family very much like ours. I also thought if I used our real names and said, "Look, I was there," at a certain point the reader might forget that this was an invention. A false memoir is what it is.
The Plot Against America is one of several novels you set in Newark during this period. How do you recreate this city so well?
I feel a very powerful affinity with this place. I grew up there and left when I was 17 years old. I never really lived there again but my family was there. I also think the riots in the late '60s `which` destroyed a lot of Newark made the city come alive for me again. All the poignancy and the pathos and the tragedy and the horror came through and that turned me back to this place. As for remembering, this period made a powerful impact on me … I didn't think we were going to win the war. The headlines at the beginning of the war were so dark: "Bataan falls"; "Corregidor falls"; "Japanese occupy such and such."
Some people might see the poignancy and familial intimacy of this book as (and understand this is in quotation marks) apologies for the "terrible things you said about Jews" in books like Portnoy's Complaint. What do you say to that?
I didn't say any terrible things (pauses, then laughs). I didn't say any terrible things about Jews. I'm not Lindbergh. I just wrote stories about Jews. And there's nothing to take back. I don't see it that way.
I think it will surprise some people that Lindbergh was so pro-Nazi at one point. Do you feel some responsibility as a novelist to correct interpretations like that?
Well, it was not a motive of mine. And I don't know that it's the responsibility of a novelist to correct those kinds of misperceptions. It simply came with the territory. Look, any isolationist who would have won in 1940 and I do believe, by the way, had Lindbergh been a candidate, that he would have won would have had to make a deal with Hitler. But Lindbergh was terribly, terribly tempted by the racial mythology of the Nazis, the notion of the superior Aryan man and the inferiority of all the other races. He bought all that worst stuff of the '30s back then. And he never really apologized or excused himself for his ideas.
Do you have dystopic view of America today?
I have a very anxious view and a very pessimistic one ... . Of all the political disappointments I've had in my lifetime, this is the worst.
You have written about not wanting this book to be interpreted as a roman à clef about current times. How do you want readers to read it then?
Well, I think they can just read it as a fantasy of what did not happen. The triumph of America is that this did not happen. It happened in Europe; it did not happen here. They got Fascism; we got Roosevelt.