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SHELF LIFE: When the truth frighteningly lives up to fiction

By Sumana Ramanan

25th May 2020

Philip Roth, who passed away two years ago, said his novel The Plot Against America, the basis of a TV series that premiered on HBO in March and April, was a ‘false memoir’. That was before the rise of Trump.

For many US citizens, Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election in 2016 on a platform of economic populism and white supremacism was a nightmare come true. But as is often the case, it was a nightmare that fiction anticipated.

As many observers pointed out after the election, Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, published 12 years earlier, in 2004, took as its premise a counterfactual: the victory of a Trump-like authoritarian and bigot in the 1940 election, the isolationist, anti-Semitic aviator Charles Lindbergh. Roth learnt that the Republican Party had come close to nominating Lindbergh against the Democratic Party’s Franklin D. Roosevelt, the real victor. If it had, the aviator might have won: he had become an American hero after bravely undertaking and completing the world’s first solo transatlantic flight.

Using this counterfactual as the historical backdrop, Roth, who passed away two years ago, wrote about a family much like his own, from a milieu that he mined all through his writing life: a middle-class Jewish neighbourhood in New Jersey state, on the US east coast.

“They [the family members] are all trying to cope with this menace, the menace of Lindbergh, and the pressures are enormous,” Roth told Jeffrey Brown in a television interview soon after the book was published, in what now seems like an age of innocence. “The subject of the book [was] how much pressure can you bring to bear on the family…They are all trying to cope with the humiliation, of the Jews somehow being separated out, of appearing to be not welcome.”

A six-episode series based on the book aired on the cable channel HBO over March and April this year, in a political climate very different from one in which the book was published. Not just Trump, but many authoritarians have come to power in countries around the world, many of whom are also deeply racist or bigoted.

“I was not planning on it being an allegory for the present moment,” Roth told David Simon, who wrote the series along with Ed Burns, when Simon had gone to meet the novelist before embarking on the television project.

Roth took the ‘what-if’ route not because he envisioned such a scenario unfolding in his country. Far from it. He told Brown that the book was a “false memoir.” At the time of writing the book, Roth believed that the story was a feat of imagination, even an outlandish scenario. That something close to it came to pass speaks as much about the depravity of human beings as the power of fiction.

Roth periodically expressed the fear that reading novels would become an activity pursued by a minority cult as people’s attention spans shrunk in the digital age, but all the while, the prolific writer produced stunning novels that repeatedly exhibited fiction’s power to help us understand ourselves and the world, and sometimes, as did The Plot Against America, warn us about the future.

(SHELF LIFE is a weekly post from the world of books: literature, ideas, reading, writing, publishing, and anything in between.)

(Facebook: Sumana Ramanan, Instagram: sumanaspirit, Twitter: @sumana_ramanan)

(Sumana Ramanan is on the committee of the Tata Literature Live! Mumbai International Literature Festival. She is an independent journalist who has worked in leading media organisations, such as Business World, Economic and Political Weekly, Hindustan Times, Reuters and Scroll.in.)