Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

The Plot Against the High Castle

I just finished reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America yesterday. When I saw a ton of hipster types reading it on the subways a few years ago, I assumed it was some kind of anti-Bush screed. (And by some of the reviews on Amazon, a lot of people who read it did the same.) But it’s not, and it’s a nice little alternate history novel that involves a big twist or two going into WW2.

I’m a big fan of these sorts of alternate history plots, especially when it’s World War 2. I just re-read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle a few weeks ago, and after a dozen or two google searches, found Roth’s book and decided I should check it out. Other similarly themed books would include Fatherland by Robert Harris, and maybe Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, both of which I enjoyed. And there’s the PS3 game Resistance: Fall of Man, which takes the jagged alt-future and mixes it with a healthy dose of zombie-like beasts set out to infect and destroy the earth. Each of these books makes what we know as historic timeline turn into a different history by the change of a small event in the past, like someone not winning an election, or a war’s winner and loser flip-flopping. It’s always interesting to play the “what if” and read a story that starts with a stock set of characters and then switch it all up until you’ve got Josef Mengele running the research division of Procter and Gamble in the 1950s.

TPAA takes a softer touch with the changes, compared to other books anyway. The US doesn’t get involved in WW2, and a land that is becoming more isolationist and worried about fixing domestic issues before international voting in Charles Lindberg as the next American President, defeating FDR in 1940. He then signs peace accords with Hitler, and on the surface, shrugging off the thought of going to war. But many social programs are started that seem to target Jews, relocating them to remote rural areas to break up the strongly Jewish enclaves in large cities, and (voluntarily) sending off young Jewish kids to live in the countryside with farmers for the summer, and maybe teaching them to stray from their family beliefs. This quickly escalates into massive anti-Semitism riots and general chaos, with families fleeing to Canada, young men enlisting in the British army via Montreal to fight in France, and crews of Jewish vigilante police groups erupting in violence with the national guard and other non-Jewish vigilante groups.

Roth chose to write the book from the viewpoint of a young Jewish boy (also named Philip Roth) living in New Jersey, and he details the conflict in terms of this boy’s family, neighborhood, and apartment building. It’s interesting, because the cheap way to go would be to have these two-dimensional stormtroopers come in and lay waste to the high and mighty Jewish people that did nothing wrong and were entirely noble. But he spends time blurring the lines a bit, showing people within the family as not being entirely perfect. His dad is completely enamored by every word put across the airwaves by blowhard gossiper Walter Winchel (sort of the Jewish Perez Hilton of the 1940s.) The dad goes on these huge tirades and believes every word of Winchel’s reports; just saying the word “Lindberg” around him makes him blow a gasket. Philip’s brother Sandy enters the program to work on a farm in Kentucky, while his cousin Alvin joins the Canadian army, gets his leg blown off in France, and later ends up a low-level mafia henchman. His aunt marries a Rabbi that is a confidant of the Lindberg political machine; the downstairs neighbors get sent off to the deep south in the relocation program.

It was a real page-turner, although I thought he didn’t dive too deep in the alt history, and the ending slapped together far too quickly. Pretty much every loose thread is pulled back together at the end of WW2 to the actual history, with few explanations as to how that would happen. Much more of the book had to do with domestic policies and the slight changes among the population. For example, the war in Europe is mentioned, but hardly detailed. The Japanese conflict is only mentioned once or twice. If you’re looking for detailed specifications of what kind of jet bombers the Luftwaffe built with no allied bombers mucking up their factories, that kind of thing isn’t there. There are also strange “factual” errors, like that if Hitler and pals went unchecked for an extra few years and the US had no great military buildup, it’s unlikely the Third Reich would have still fallen in 1945. This book’s much more focused on how the already existing anti-semitism in the 1940s could have exploded if the political situation went south, and it does do a good job of twisting together existing political figures into the fabric of the story. That said, I found Roth’s writing itself to be somewhat clunky and tangled in places. There were more than a few times where I read something and had to say “wait, they’re in Kentucky now?” and had to backtrack and read forward and search to find the tiny reference he made to some huge plot device.

What’s weird to me is that if you research Lindberg or the anti-war far right movement (which has been forgotten by history), you see that a lot of the reasons they had for staying out of WW2 were the same reasons people now state for staying/getting out of Iraq. Read this speech he gave in 1941, and it’s just odd to think that he’s on the completely opposite side of the political spectrum from people giving the same speech today. And with that in mind, back up to the thing I said about people who reviewed the book saying “OMG BUSH PWNED!” – did they even read the book?

Anyway, worth checking out, but go with the PKD for a better-written book, or Fatherland for a more technical one.