Philip Roth has conjured up an alternative America—but fantasy is the wrong form for a writer uncannily able to find real life fantastic

"Portnoy, yes, it's an old French name, a corruption of porte noir, meaning black door or gate. Apparently in the Middle Ages in France the door to our family manor house …" Thus the young Alexander Portnoy dreams of convincing the pert shiksa ice skater that he is not a Jew. But even in his dream she is not to be misled. "You seem a very nice person, Mr. Porte-Noir, but why do you go around covering the middle of your face like that?" As the narrator goes on to explain, to us if not to her, it is because of his nose, which, unlike his penis, is now, with the onset of adolescence, so insistent on extending itself that it can't be persuaded to retract even temporarily. "That ain't a nose," shouts his interior voice, "it's a hose! Screw off, Jewboy! Get off the ice and leave these girls alone!"

The Jewish notables who vilified Philip Roth after the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, in 1969, were objecting to a lot more about its hero than his preoccupation with sex. They didn't like his preoccupation with his nose, either. They didn't like Roth's apparent suggestion that there was no level ground for a young male American Jew between the twin peaks of tormented insecurity and priapic self-assertion. As a goy who was born and raised in Australia, where the book was banned, and who first read it in England, where it wasn't, I couldn't see their point at the time. I was too busy rolling around fighting for breath. It was the funniest book in the world. What was there not to like, except perhaps the hilarious sexual frankness that had caused the distinctly non-Jewish puritans of my benighted homeland to wig out? Why should his own people attack him?

With Roth's latest book, The Plot Against America, the answer becomes clear. It was because the very idea of "his own people" was bad news to those who wanted their ethnicity to be a minor issue, not a major one. A re-reading of Portnoy's Complaint—and there could be no more delightful occupation—reveals that the rabbinical elders who convicted its author of Jüdische Selbsthass, Jewish self-hatred, had quite a lot to go on. Not without reason, they were more shaken up by what was going on in Portnoy's mind than by what was going on in his pants. Compared with his throbbing self-consciousness as a Jew, Portnoy's throbbing crotch was a sideshow. But Roth's judges convicted him without trying him first. He was proud of his background—savagely proud. Along with all the other themes he has explored since, his exultant celebration of Jewish-American social cohesion is there in the first of his books to become world famous. The earlier books—Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Letting Go (1962), and When She Was Good (1967)—had each stated some of his future subjects, but Portnoy's Complaint stated the whole lot, packed together and painted like a circus act. Portnoy's Complaint is a trick car out of which, instead of a family of dwarfs, novels climb one after another, at an astonishing rate and seemingly without end. None of them is without its felicities, a round dozen are indispensable reading, a good handful of that dozen are among the best novels ever written in America, and all of them can be found tightly encoded in his original masterpiece. That lavish celebration of baseball in The Great American Novel, for example, is there in the scenes where the grown men of Portnoy's arcadian neighborhood play seven-inning softball on a spring Sunday morning while the youngsters long to be so masculine, funny, and sure of their place. But this new novel was in there too, a novel wholly, instead of partly, concerned with being unsure—with insecurity.

Insecurity saturates The Plot Against America. Unfortunately, the saturation goes right down to the level of its telling. For a writer blessed with the eyes and ears to find real life fantastic in every detail, fantasy is the wrong form. As a narrative idea, Roth's latest brain wave is down there with the one animating The Breast (1972)—perhaps even lower, because at least the Breast had Kafka's cockroach for a predecessor. The predecessor of The Plot Against America is Robert Harris's Fatherland, a considerable book in its own right but one that exhausts the possibilities of its narrative trick, leaving Roth little room for maneuver. In Fatherland, America is unable to intervene decisively against Germany, leaving the Nazis a free hand in Europe. In The Plot Against America, America is unable to intervene decisively against Germany, leaving … what? Well, it leaves Roth a chance to speculate about what might have happened to America's Jews.

But first of all, and you might well ask, what happens to America? Charles Lindbergh becomes President. To make this plausible, Roth has to rejigger the 1940 Republican convention. The re-jiggering entails quite a lot of jiggery-pokery, but he just about makes it stick. There is a persuasive actuality to the way Lindbergh captures the electorate's imagination by flying from city to city. It would be more persuasive if he were doing it in Germany, where Hitler actually did do that; Hitler made a point of dropping from the clouds all over the place, and Leni Riefenstahl's orgasmic scenes of the smitten populace searching the sky for the arrival of his aircraft are a fair registration of the enthusiasm he actually aroused. You can just about imagine Lindbergh's having the same effect on the American backwoods, and there is no strain at all in imagining the appeal of his message: "Vote for Lindbergh or vote for War." Almost everybody was keen on voting against war with Germany until Japan attacked, and might well have remained keen on it afterward. If Hitler had been less crazy he would never have declared war on the United States, which the terms of his treaty with Japan did not oblige him to do. If he hadn't, Roosevelt might have had a hard job getting America into the war against him. That was the true fork in history, which Roth might have chosen to treat, but it would have meant leaving Lindbergh out. Roth, however, wanted Lindbergh in, because Lindbergh had anti-Semitic views.

Presented by

Clive James is a London-based literary journalist, novelist, critic, and poet. His collected poems, The Book of My Enemy, and a selection of his critical prose, As of This Writing, were both published last year.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In