The ending of Philip Roth's masterpiece, The Plot Against America, gave me chills. It strongly reminded me of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in which, in a matter-of-fact tone, Gregor Samsa charts his transformation into a giant bug. While in English Samsa becomes a cockroach, in the original German, he changes into a huge insect. The lack of specificity in this phrase highlights its horror. The change is inchoate, literally incomprehensible. Language is at its limits when depicting the transformation.
I was reminded of this descriptive technique of Kafka's when finishing The Plot. Roth wrote this book a few years back as a cautionary "what if" tale. What if, he imagined, anti-Semitic and wildly popular aviation hero Charles Lindbergh had become president during World War II? What would be the consequences for America's Jews and for the country itself? Through the eyes of a respectable, hard-working Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, Roth exposes a dangerous turn of events that feels all too real. Jews are fired, involuntarily relocated, and, as in the case of Walter Winchell, assassinated.
Our narrator is "Philip Roth" himself, aged 8 and 9. The traumas of the times visit him literally in his bedroom, in the form of his cousin Alvin, who is maimed fighting the Nazis, and his hapless and orphaned downstairs neighbor, Seldon Wishnow. Young Philip loathes Wishnow for his helplessness. When Roth's family is doomed to be relocated to Kentucky, Philip tries to intervene with a well-positioned relative, and inadvertantly gets Seldon and his mother relocated as well. I don't want to give away more, but suffice it to say that Philip's efforts to rid himself of his weaker doppelganger just bring the boy closer. At story's end, Roth writes that Seldon replaces the stump for which Philip cared when his cousin Alvin shared his room. Now, he writes, "the boy himself was the stump, and...I was the prosthesis."
What is a prosthesis? In Greek it means an addition. In medical terms, it is a replacement for a missing body part. But the truth is that, like "insect," "prosthesis" can mean many different things. While we can't pin it down, we knows it incites in us revulsion and disgust.
Can we give a Jewish reading of the word? In the context of Roth's book, Jews are a kind of prosthesis in American culture, an unwanted addition, something gruesome, something deeply resented, as by an amputee, even if inevitable.
My favorite Roth books were the early ones. Portnoy's Complaint expedited by a few years my maturation process, since I read it at a tender age. I've kind of avoided American Pastoral and The Human Stain, because they seemed too misanthropic. Like Kafka, Roth seems to live with a lot of fear. And yet he can channel his dread into art, which is more than some of us can claim.