Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Philip Roth vs Daphne du Maurier: The Battle to Epitomize our Times (well, not really a battle except when read back-to-back)


I made a foray into Philip Roth's Plot Against America soon after its publication in 2004. The concept was cool, as in neat-o, that America had gone Nazi. That instead of FDR winning a third term in the White House, Charles Lindberg, nonfictional Nazi sympathizer, had run and won. Given the decades of Nazis in fiction and cinema who made great villains, I was ready for fun. After 50 pages I wandered off, however, insufficiently captivated. In 2004. In 2017 I returned to the novel, along with a slew of readers, because Plot is primo relevant. We have a fascist in in D.C.

I understand my disinterest in 2004 -- while the characters are believable, plucked as they from Roth's Newark, New Jersey childhood, they remain historic in feel, not universal. I didn't see myself or my milieu in any of them. The detailed plot was more workmanlike than fascinating. Now, 2017, the novel's concept overrides all. We have a nonpolitician, a larger than life public figure in the White House, beating out the exquisitely qualified competition. And he's scary as shit.

Plot's national antisemitic campaign, Lindberg-initiated, is believable in the novel's context. Maybe, however, it is too specific.  There's a plot twist that could well  bear out in real life in the U.S., too, but no point in ruining that. Because of Trump, The Plot Against America is a valuable tool, a 'we missed the alarm clock, can we NOW wake up' call. I could have put it down but I knew I dare not do so this time.

Contrast that with Daphne du Maurier's short story, "The Birds." I read it yesterday. It's set in Britain's Cornwall, on the coast (not Marin County). Seen through the eyes of Nat, a thoughtful family-man, the ominous story feels (feels) at least as plausible as Roth's terror. The narrator notices unexplainable and eerie gatherings of birds. As happens with any prophet warning God's children to take care, Nat's cautions to his neighbors are ignored. His precaution serves only his wife and two children. As with Plot, there's much detail--Nat's smart hard work to shore up his house--and the birds' ballistic attacks. Yes, the premise seems a bit more implausible than Roth's, but "The Birds" seems far more real, and is a far more satisfying read. With the Doomsday Clock near midnight, avian disruption--well, who knows.

I was impressed by Roth, enchanted and terrified by du Maurier. Glad I read both.

[Note: These are my two most recently completed reads. Not much of a basis for comparison? Probably not, but I trust a reader with forgive my fancy.]

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