Roth found this idea terribly offensive, but in fact it framed his dilemma. There really were important aspects of Jewish life in America that Roth could not abide. As the child of lower-middle-class parents, he loathed the invidious class distinctions made under the guise of organized religion (Goodbye, Columbus). He opposed the reflexive Israel-worship of many of his contemporaries, the idea that the Promised Land was anywhere other than Newark, or at least New York (Portnoy’s Complaint, Operation Shylock). But most of all, Roth rejected the claims that groups of people—what he has called “the tyranny of the we”—always tried to make on the individual born into those groups (the early story “Defender of the Faith,” and everything since).
In the background to all this, and as the final screaming endpoint to every argument, was the still-recent murder of the European Jews. Goodbye, Columbus appeared four years after Anne Frank’s diary became a hit on Broadway and four years before Hannah Arendt was pilloried for her report on the Eichmann trial (by many of the same people who would later attack Portnoy’s Complaint). In the decades to come, the American obsession with the Holocaust became something extremely strange, crossing over at times into a fantasy of persecution on these shores. Irving Howe was voicing a profound generational discomfort when he wrote, “But for an accident of geography, we might also now be bars of soap.” But this sentiment of identification and solidarity was very quickly, and possibly too easily, transformed into an entire industry—with movies and tour groups and even intellectual arbiters who decided what was (and is) a permissible attitude to take toward Auschwitz, and what is not. The template for the Times’ painfully trite mini-obituaries for all the 9/11 victims came from the tradition of Holocaust commemoration. The script for the fetishization, and politicization, of 9/11 was written by Leon Uris, not Karl Rove.
Throughout all this, Roth’s has been a voice of moral discernment. He has been appropriately serious about the catastrophe, as in the powerful description of the Ivan Demjanjuk trial in Operation Shylock: “The mystery isn’t that you, who had the time of your life at Treblinka, went on to become an amiable, hardworking American nobody, but that those who cleaned the corpses out for you, your accusers here, could ever pursue anything resembling the run-of-the-mill after what was done to them by the likes of you—that they can manage run-of-the-mill lives, that’s what’s unbelievable!” But he has also been playful: In what is perhaps his finest joke, in The Ghost Writer, Roth has a young Zuckerman begin to believe that he’s found Anne Frank, who has in fact survived the camps and is living incognito in the United States. She is beautiful. Zuckerman imagines courting her, and then imagines the conversation with the Zuckerman parents, who believe that his stories are bad for the Jews. “I met a marvelous young woman while I was up in New England. . . . We are going to be married.” “Married? But so fast? Nathan, is she Jewish?” “Yes, she is.” “But who is she?” “Anne Frank.” To be serious about the Holocaust is to understand it, first of all, as an actual historical event. The important underlying idea of Roth’s work, until now, is that anything can happen in America—that is the peculiar burden and hope of this country—and that it is the writer’s task to see clearly what exactly is happening and what it means.
The Plot Against America is being greeted in some quarters as Roth’s late-life capitulation on the question of whether it could—even whether it did—happen here. Ron Rosenbaum, in a giddy New York Observer column, suggested that the novel, with its Schindler-y overtones, was ripe for cinematization by Steven Spielberg—“thrilling, suspenseful, and profound” would be the movie that resulted, according to Rosenbaum.
“Many of the things Roth imagines happening to the Jews under Lindbergh have in fact happened in this country—to blacks.”
This is too easy, and too bad. The book is a tribute to Roth’s parents—it imagines that under conditions of extreme duress, they would have acted with courage and dignity. “My father was a rescuer,” Roth writes toward the end, “and orphans were his specialty.” It is the most tender Roth has been toward his parents—it is the most tender he has been toward anyone. But the novel’s historical argument is not a historical argument about the Jews. “It is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered,” James Baldwin once wrote, “and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is.” That’s never felt truer than in this strange book, where so many of the things Roth imagines happening to the Jews under Lindbergh have in fact happened in this country—to blacks. Roth’s Holocaust novel becomes something like a Holocaust anti-novel, where the crucial point appears to be that what’s happening on the page has never actually happened in life.
So Spielberg really should make this into a movie. But he must literalize Roth’s metaphors: “1940” is actually 2001; “Lindbergh” is, of course, W.; the craven antiwar lies of the America Firsters are in fact the craven pro-war lies of the American Enterprise Institute; and “American Jews,” believers in the American Constitution and pursuers of the American Dream whose rights and protections are slowly stripped away by a hostile government and a mostly indifferent population, are, of course, Arab-Americans.
One thing Spielberg won’t be able to capture, and the one persistently counter-historical element of the book, is Roth’s subdued tone, so out of character for him. Everything else in the novel eventually returns to normal—so that the Lindbergh years in this universe become just a terrible detour. The only thing that’s different in the alternate future is Roth. He is frightened and overly cautious and needlessly loquacious. The narrator of this book is not the tirading monologuist of Portnoy’s Complaint or Operation Shylock or even The Human Stain. Had it happened here, we might have got this sentimental, essayistic champion of Jewish Newarkers. Instead we got the Roth who continues to reinvent himself, who has stared down death and read the New York Times and pondered the meaning of his freedom. And who still hasn’t done anything for Israel.