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Fantasy flights 

An interview with novelist Philip Roth

click to enlarge The Plot Against America
  • The Plot Against America

No one could accuse Philip Roth of lacking a fantasy life. In a 1972 novel, Roth conjured a man who slowly became a breast. Then, in 1993, he spun a big blowsy yarn about, well, himself. This Philip Roth had worked in Athens as an Israeli spy and was fighting over his identity with an anti-Zionist doppelganger 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 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 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, yes, Bush's America.

Freeman: From American Pastoral to this book it feels like you are in a period of if not political novels, then novels about history. Why this and why now?

Roth: I think it has to do with age. Things happen to one over a period of time and you can see a long way. And, even though I was a child when this story was happening, this period made a powerful impact on me. ... I didn't think we were going to win. The headlines at the beginning of the war were so dark: Bataan falls; Corregidor falls; Japanese occupy blah-blah. This period that I wrote about is alive for me because of the war. So I was very much trying to deal with figures who were out of my childhood, some of whom were quite frightening to me as a child.

Freeman: Why did you choose "Philip Roth" as your protagonist as opposed to another character?

Roth: 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.

Freeman: The Plot Against America is one of several novels you set in Newark during this period. How do you re-create this city so well?

Roth: 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 [that] 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, I do have a pretty good memory. But I would phone my brother and say what was on the corner of such and such. And I go back. Especially when I was writing American Pastoral and some of the Zuckerman books I would go back to Newark and refresh my recollection, at least if the stuff was still standing that I was looking for.

Freeman: It must have changed a lot.

Roth: Well, you bet it's changed. There was massive destruction in the '60s and then decay since. In many ways I'm remembering from bits and pieces. I go through the microfilms of the Newark Evening News. And I have pals, old Newark pals -- even friends who still live there, strange to say. From all that I'm able to piece together what I have. Newspaper photographs are very evocative.

Freeman: I think it will surprise some people that Lindbergh was so pro-Nazi at one point. Do you feel like it is the responsibility of a novelist to correct that interpretation?

Roth: 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.

Freeman: So you see two sides to Lindbergh?

Roth: 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. And then he went out to the Pacific -- maybe it was '44 -- and he helped them with ... fuel consumption. ... 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.

Freeman: Do you have a dystopian view of America today?

Roth: I have a very anxious view and a very pessimistic one, yes I do. How about you?

Freeman: I am depressed. ... I really want to move if Bush wins ...

Roth: I understand what your impulse is; it's awful. Of all the political disappointments I've had in my lifetime, this is the worst ... this is the worst. Because you can and cannot foresee the consequences here.

Freeman: In your recent New York Times essay you write about not wanting this book to be interpreted as a roman clef about current times. How do you want readers to read the book then?

Roth: 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.

John Freeman is a writer in New York. His reviews, essays and interviews have appeared in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice.

  • An interview with novelist Philip Roth

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