In honour of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Umapagan Ampikaipakan takes a look at some other books that indulge in the subjunctive, that seek to explore the world as it could have been
The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth
391pp. / Vintage
“FEAR presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course, no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.” So begins Philip Roth’s re-imagination of American history.
The year is 1940, and Charles A. Lindbergh has just defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a presidential election. He is a rabid isolationist, so much so that he remains true to a policy of
“America First”. He is a Nazi sympathiser, so much so that he negotiates a non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler. He is an anti-semite.
All of this sets the scene for Roth’s cautionary tale. One that swings between the epic retelling of an alternate history of the United States and the intimate domestic drama faced by a Jewish family in Weequahic, Newark.
In The Plot Against America, Roth does more than just reinvent the United States. He masterfully creates historical apparitions of Lindbergh, of FDR, of Ford, of La Guardia. He then employs these fictional doppelgangers to tell a revisionist tale of what happens when the isolationists take over and when governments, persuaded by self-interest, begin to abandon morality.
Roth brings to life this alternate reality in flawless fashion. He is meticulous. He is studious. He is rigorous in his every depiction. The only thing missing are the footnotes.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
by Michael Chabon
464pp. / Harper Perennial
IT is upon a small piece of diversionary history that this novel is premised. That in 1940, Harry A. Slattery, the Undersecretary of the Interior, proposed that the problem of Alaskan development be solved by means of immigration. His report included a scheme to move European refugees, especially Jews persecuted by Nazi Germany to four locations in Alaska in an attempt to create a sort of haven for them.
It didn’t happen, but Michael Chabon supposes that it did. Here, for 60 years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the “hard-bitten, half-decrepit town” of Sitka, Alaska.
For 60 years, they have been left to fend for themselves, alone, forgotten, relegated to the backwaters of history. But now, the District is set to revert to Alaskan control and once again the tides of change threaten to sweep them into the unknown.
It is through this meditation on displacement that Chabon finely threads a sharp and cynical whodunnit. A tale so steeped in noir that you can hear a deep, gravelly voice narrating it in your mind. “Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.”
Chabon’s prose is capable of conjuring up perfect representations of utterly imaginary worlds. He is capable of creating a sense of nostalgia for something never there. He does it with beauty. He does it with fearless imagination.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a gripping murder mystery. It is a love story. It is an homage to Bogart and Bacall. It is Chabon at the very peak of his abilities.
Carter Beats The Devil
by Glen David Gold
496pp. / Hyperion
THIS is an old-fashioned novel with a remarkably modern sensibility. This is pulp fiction with literary flair. Glen David Gold weaves a bewitching tale of intrigue and deception with a flair that would have made Charles Carter proud.
The novel opens in the early part of the 20th Century, in the world of vaudeville magic, where the aforementioned master magician is in the process of executing a particularly gruesome trick. It involves being butchered with knives and eaten by a wild animal. It involves a volunteer from the audience who just so happens to be the 29th president of the United States, Warren G. Harding.
Harding’s inexplicable death just a few hours following his participation in Carter’s hair-raising stunt is the point on which the novel turns. It sets off an intense performance by Gold as he contrives a complex story featuring relentless chases, mustachioed villains, pirates, wild beasts, Harry Houdini, and Philo T. Farnsworth. There is love. There is murder. There is mayhem.
There is so much misdirection that it’ll leave you guessing right up until the very end.
Carter Beats The Devil can best be described as Hollywood gold. It is paced to within an inch of its life. The action is breakneck. The dialogue is snappy. The plot is tinged in quicksilver. This is fiction that doesn’t just entertain you, it tricks you, it pulls the wool, it makes you look the other way before finally screaming, eyes wide and hands outstretched, “ta-da!”