The Plot Against America (2004)
by Phillip Roth
I bought The Plot Against America in an independent book store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, essentially to read on the 6 hour plane ride between Boston and Los Angeles, which I did, with time to spare. I've abandoned the Kindle for travel reading for two main reasons. First, I like to go to book stores when I travel and buy books, preferably with a book mark, as a souvenir of places I've been- not a book about that place, just from that place. Second, when you are talking about books from, say, the 1960's forward, they are more expensive on Kindle than what you can find them for in Used book stores.
For example, I bought The Plot Against America in Portsmouth as a remaindered book, new with the exception of a red mark across the bottom that indicated it had been returned to the publisher, probably from a chain book store. It cost seven dollars, and I got to feel like a good guy. On Amazon, the Kindle version of this book is eleven dollars. It's a 300 page book in paperback, with thirteen point type and generous margins. The presence of a remaindered copy of The Plot Against America a decade after it was published (and the classic one cent hardback copies on Amazon) raises the question about whether it was too soon for the 1001 Books to select it in their 2006 edition. The Plot Against America was one of only eleven titles removed between 2008 and 2010, and the first of those eleven that I've read.
Therefore, The Plot Against America qualified as a canonical title in the precincts of the 1001 Books project for under five years. That is not a classic. It's an admission that the editors included it the first edition by mistakes, and they rectified that mistake quickly. Also on the list of 2010 removals are two other books that were popular upon initial publication: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. by Michael Chabon.
I would imagine that this is familiar territory for the sort of people reading this blog. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is actually a book I've consciously avoided reading because it sounds annoying. I liked The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2012) but passed on Telegraph Avenue (2012) despite growing up there. Perhaps because I grew up there. All these titles being discussed are in the rare cross over of books that are well regarded by critics and best sellers. Like the other books here, The Plot Against America takes the familiar approach of combining "high" literary technique with genre fiction plot. In this case, it's a variety of "What if Hitler won World War II?" history based speculative fiction.
Unusually, while The Plot Against America was embraced both by high minded critics and the reading public, it was ignored by speculative fiction enthusiasts. The "what-if" addressed by Roth is a world where Charles Lindbergh runs as an isolationist Republican candidate in the American Presidential campaign of 1940... and beats Roosevelt, who was running for his third term.
Lindbergh quickly moves to make a preemptive peace with Germany and Japan, and the books carries the reader through to when Hitler betrayed Stalin and attacked Russia. The characters are wholly familiar to readers of Roth's other works, an extended family of non-specific Azhkenazi Jews living in New Jersey. The narrator is a Roth stand in, the ten year old boy who is the youngest of two brothers. The father is an insurance salesman, which, I believe is also the occupation of the father in Portnoy's Complaint. In fact, having recently read Portnoy's Complaint I can say that the similarities in that department are striking.
The larger trend of literary authors delving into genre fiction, typically as a ploy to actually sell some books (and hopefully some film or tv rights) is deeply interesting to me, and seems to be a point of similarity between the music industry and the literature/fiction industry. It's one thing to make garbage and sell it, and it's another to make art and not sell it, but making something that people say is art AND want to buy is the sweet spot of the cultural industrial complex.