Monday, May 26, 2008

Plots Against America, or The Tales of Two Dicks

In Radio Free Albemuth Philip K Dick talks about his experiences in an alternative universe where Richard Nixon clone brings about a totalitarian government in America. One of the plot twist is that he is a communist stooge. According to Phil Ferris F Fremont red baited his way to glory, with their enemies’ lists his administration rounded up people who opposed his regime. Being that PKD was a Christian who was greatly influenced by the Gnostic traditions he came to believe that this world that we are seeing is a creation of the demiurge and that the persecution of Christians by the Romans were still on going. Though he was a very well read man who has had a profound impact on Science Fiction & popular culture the shifting reality that he tried to create in Radio Free Albemuth is carried away by the fact that the Christians were never persecuted by the Roman government as he believes. Knowing the truth about the relationships between Christians and non-Christians in the Roman Empire do make it harder for me to subsume myself in his alternate world. This is similar to my reaction to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.

Like Dick Roth’s novel is set in an alternative reality where a prominent right-winger turns America into a fascist state. In both the novels the villain is working for a foreign power and in our current world their views have been debunked, discredited, discarded, and debacled. Like Nixon Lindbergh was very popular however his hatred of Jewish people, his sympathy for Nazis and mainly his involvement with America First really tarnished his reputation. Similarly Nixon was popular enough to have the 1960 election stolen from him and to win a decisive electoral victory in 1972. Also in The Plot Against America Roth is the narrator of the story, unlike Nixon Lindbergh plans on rounding up Jews. Both novels use a sort of deus ex machina to get the nation out its’ jam. Both novels are a celebration of a different time and we can see the great love of both writers for their hometowns. Though Dick wrote Radio Free Albemuth in the early seventies one of the things that I love about the story is that we get a glimpse of San Francisco before it became Silicon Valley, in The Man In The High Castlewe see that Dick had a love for San Francisco of farmers and small time business folks. Likewise Roth shows great affection for the places of his childhood. Another similarity is that the heroes of both books, Phil’s friend & Roth’s father, get messages on how to resist from the radio. Herman & Bessie Roth turn to Walter Winchell's radio shows to get the truth on Lindy's America Firsters, while Phil's friends, Nicholas Brady & Sadassa Silver, turn to the satellite VALIS for guidance on resisting Ferris' Friends of The American People.

Like the Albemuth saga The Plot Against America has a historical error that keeps me from being completely subsumed by its' narrative. While PKD has some exaggerates the Christian persecution by the pagans Roth makes it appear that Jewish people had it worse than the indigenous people or black folk. Though I am ignorant of a great deal of the very real discrimination that members of the tribe faced most European Jews have been embraced by the dominant culture many people of colour are still face terrible discrimination, and more to the point Black, Latinos, and First Peoples had it a lot worse, Maybe its’ because of my experiences I felt a great deal of sympathy and empathy for the people in the novel but my feeling that the characters did not seem to be as aware racism lowered the impact of a great book slightly. That being said everyone writes what they know and just like I am more attuned to racism I would not expect Jewish people to be more attuned to racism than hatred of Jews. In a similar vein it would be unfair to dismiss The Color Purple because it does not discuss the oppression that Latinos were going though maybe a Guatamalan woman who reads it may draw parallels to her experiences.

That being said one of the things about The Plot Against America (TPAA) is how much self segregation there was by Caucasian Americans at the time, being that all the European ethnic groups were so insular at the time most of the people did not think much about folks outside their ethnicity, John Dos Passos’ 1919 gives us an example of this when Anne Elizabeth Trent makes a disparaging comment about the non Anglo Saxons who went on strike. Of course by 1942 white ethnocentrism had decreased greatly though from the actions in TPAA we can clearly see that it was not gone.

I think Phillip Roth achieved a number of things in TPAA, one of them is that he not only avoided the disturbing and hackneyed ideas in most alternative histories, of whom Harry Turtledove is a great example, but he also is able to put the reader in the frame of mind of a Newark child who looks at a frightening world with a child’s eyes. Furthermore he shows his ability to write humor with vignettes like young Phillip’s stealing of clothes, his masquerading as a catholic orphan and his encounters with Seldon. The fact that he did all three of these things which can be very difficult very successfully show me that he has earned his crown. I think that his greatest funny

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