No one could accuse Philip Roth of lacking a fantasy life. In a 1972 novel, Roth conjured up a man who slowly became a breast. Then, in 1993, he spun a big blowsy yarn starring a fantasy version of himself. This Philip Roth had 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 alternate 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 Roosevelt to win the 1940 presidential race. 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 of Newark.
I recently spoke to Roth via the telephone about this fantasy, and here's what the reclusive 71-year-old writer had to say about his new novel, Charles Lindbergh and Bush's America.
Why did you choose "Philip Roth" as your protagonist as opposed to another character?
I told myself this when I started this book: Make one change. Just change the 1940 election and then, of course, follow out the consequences of it. But keep everything else in place. 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 that I could add a certain authenticity to it, and, as it were, trick the reader into believing it.
If I used our real names and said, “Look, I was there,” at a certain point in the book the reader might forget that this was an invention. A false memoir is was it is, and it's not the first time I've done that.
The Plot Against America is one of several novels you set in Newark during this period. How do you recreate that 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—I suppose like some object that you've lost and then you remember it. All the poignancy and the pathos and the tragedy and the horror came through and that turned me back to this place, and it just began to seem to me richer and richer. 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 this book's poignancy and familial intimacy as, and understand this is in quotation marks, you taking back the "terrible things you said about Jews" in books like Portnoy's Complaint. What do you say to that?
I didn't say anything terrible (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.
So you see two sides to Lindbergh?
There was something stupid about Lindbergh. He wasn't a stupid man. But there was something stupid in him, and he failed to grasp certain things. The blight on his public career was in the '30s: beginning in about '36 when he began to go to Germany and visit the airplane factories there until December 1941. But as soon as the war began, Lindbergh did everything he could to join the army. The work he did during the war was terrific. He worked for Ford on the B-27. He worked on United Aircraft in Connecticut on I think it was the Navy Corsair. He even flew some combat missions, although he didn't have the right to, and he was just an ace. He was extraordinary as a fighter pilot.
So, he did employ all these skills for the U.S. during World War II. But he had everything wrong before the war. He 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. Not just the Jews, by the way; he had very strong feelings about Asians. Yellow hoards he called them. He bought all that worst stuff of the '30s back then. And he never really apologized or excused himself for his ideas. He was rather stubborn about that.
Do you have a dystopic view of America today?
I have a very anxious view and a very pessimistic one—yes, I do. How about you?
I am depressed. I really want to move (now that Bush has won).
I understand your impulse; it's awful. Of all the political disappointments I've had in my lifetime, this is the worst. This is the worst, because you both can and cannot foresee the consequences here.
One of the things you've talked about over the past couple of decades is the way readership is going down. What are your feelings about getting this book out to serious readers and what its impact can be?
I think the core of serious readers still exists, it's not huge. I think that talking about books has absolutely disappeared. I remember back in the '50s and '60s among my friends that if you were in a group of people and if someone brought up a book, you could be sure that maybe half the people had read it. Now, I find that no one ever does that. If they talk about a book, it's a comment and then that's the end of that. Movies people can talk about endlessly. And they can bank on the fact that people have seen the movie.
In a recent essay you wrote about not wanting this book to be interpreted as a roman á clef about current times. How do you want readers to read the book 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.