Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Five top books on worry

Steven Amsterdam is the author of Things We Didn’t See Coming, which was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and won The Age Book of the Year Award, among other honors. A native New Yorker and a nurse, he lives in Melbourne, Australia.

He discussed five notable books on worry with Daisy Banks for The Browser, including:
The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Are we in the realm of paranoia?

Yes, one of the classic worries. It is more usual for the speculative to inhabit the future and meditate on all that could go wrong, but Roth goes back in time. What if Charles Lindbergh won the presidency in 1940? He didn’t have much political experience, but, hey, he was a celebrity. He could fly a plane and Roosevelt couldn’t walk. It’s not outside of the realm. What follows, politically, is utterly believable. Rather than dive into World War II, Lindbergh goes isolationist (as only an able-bodied man could). He allies the US with Germany and Japan. Yes, it’s still America, but increasingly, more fascist, more anti-Semitic.

The best way to tell stories of horrific times is not through the central players amassing power, but through the lives of the people off to the side, simply trying to survive. In The Plot Against America, it’s a Jewish family from New Jersey, who happens to be the Roths, and the story is told by Philip, aged seven. The family is distressed by Lindbergh’s nomination to the Republican ticket, but it isn’t till later, after his election, that their worst nightmares get teeth. It happens during that perfectly innocuous American tradition, the family trip to Washington DC. Their hotel reservation has disappeared. A simple enough error, but we know that it’s not an error, and we know that it’s only the beginning.

Why the love?

The book stuns through its complete plausibility from a historical angle and the prism of the seven-year-old’s youthful but (unsurprisingly) intelligent perspective. Years after reading it, the broad sweep of the book lingers in my mind as a cautionary tale, as if this was some almost-true alley of history we narrowly avoided.

And retrospective speculation doesn’t normally have the force that The Plot Against America has. What gives the book its immediacy are the parallels with War on Terror mindset taking hold in the beginning of the last decade. The justifications for clamping down, for profiling, for marginalising suspect groups are all there and all well worth worrying about.
Read about the other books Amsterdam tagged at The Browser.

The Plot Against America appears on Stephen L. Carter's list of five top presidential thrillers and David Daw's list of five American presidents in alternate history.

--Marshal Zeringue