27 January 2010

What If It Happened Here - Review of "The Plot Against America"

The Plot Against America (Vintage International) The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I went into this book expecting to dislike it. I'm not certain why. Maybe it was the fact that I remember gushing reviews talking about how Roth had created a 'whole new literary genre'.

The genre exists. It's called alternate history. It sells millions of books.

As alt-history goes, this isn't too bad. The memoir aspect is a little different, but does fit well with the focus on day-to-day life of ordinary people instead of movers-and-shakers. As for alt-history tropes, we h=get the seemingly ever-present Jews (nothing against Judaism, it just that Jews are way over-represented in nearly all alt-history series for reasons that I have yet to ascertain), we have a roughly defined point-of-departure (why did Lindy suddenly decide to run for president?), but a real failing on what Terry Pratchett has termed the 'trousers of time' problem. Basically, Roth gives us two years of alternate history, but then has the world snap back into the same basic shape as before (victory in Europe a little late, RFK still assassinated in the 60's). I don't buy it. Once history comes off the rails of what we have been taught, it cannot be forced back on. Would RFK have run for president if JFK hadn't been killed? Would JFK have been president if his big brother Joe Jr. hadn't died in a B-25 bomber/drone accident? Would the US Air Corps have used the same plan to take out V1 sites if they had 2 extra years of aviation development under Lindy before entering the war? Everything goes all quantum on you.

Outside of the discussion of alt-history tropes, well, I'm not sure if I see what makes Roth so admired. Some scenes were very effective. Many others felt like bad filler. The main character, Philip Roth at age 9 or so, comes off as a self-absorbed little snot.

Maybe I'm not cultured enough to understand.

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