Tuesday, October 19, 2004

"Tojo. Petain. Batista. De Valera. Arias. Quezon. Camacho. Litvinov. Zhukov. Hull. Welles. Harriman. Dies. Heydrich. Blum. Quisling..."

Finished The Plot Against America : A Novel last night. I don't like it when novels have the subtitle "a novel"! And I wholly disapprove of Roth's decision (or his publishers', who knows, but I suspect it originated with the author) to print the historical appendix at the end of the book. There are many structural reasons never, never to do this with historical novels--surely a brief note would have been enough, if he wanted to clarify, but I think it would be more genuinely chilling without those pages at all.

I quite enjoyed this--there are some great moments, and the setting of Newark in the late 30s is excellent--but I didn't think it was nearly as good as some of his others in the last ten years: I still think that Sabbath's Theater is the best of the ones I've read, and I loved The Human Stain too (but I haven't read the other two in that trilogy, American Pastoral and I Married a Communist--must check them out, though). I think what put me off this one a little was the curious flatness of the tone. It's written in the voice of the adult, not the boy who's described, and the language is really quite sterile. I found myself thinking several times of Pelecanos' Hard Revolution and noting that there is no detail quite so memorable in Roth's novel as Pelecanos' quiet observation about the ordinary Greek diners of the 1960s that the Heinz bottles on the tables are full of a cheaper ketchup that is sugarier and saltier and more vinegary than the label would suggest. (I wish I'd taken this quotation out while I still had the book, it stuck with me for some reason.)

(NB I can now say having read Roth's novel that Stanley Crouch's criticism of the book for excluding black people and the problem of race is actually just totally misguided. The book's really a fable rather than a realist novel, and the way the point-of-view is set up--little Philip Roth all grown up--it would be wholly out of keeping with the character formed by the milieu he describes to talk more than occasionally about race relations. Which come up briefly, but which just aren't central to this particular book, and that's the way it is...)

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