Adam Shatz in the LRB’s blog:
‘The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of the American reality,’ Philip Roth wrote in Commentary in 1961. ‘It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.’
When Donald Trump was elected president, many people were struck by the eery prescience of Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, an alternative history in which the right-wing isolationist Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, imposing a reign of terror. But the Roth of 1961 had it right. Trump provided a humbling reminder that fiction is no match for what Roth called ‘the American berserk’.
America is hardly alone. The most hysterical – and also the most articulate, and therefore dangerous – manifestation of what might be called the French berserk is the journalist and potential presidential contender Éric Zemmour. His emergence has thrown into relief the ‘meagre imagination’ even of Michel Houellebecq, whose 2015 novel Soumission told the story of a Muslim businessman of Tunisian origin who becomes France’s president and imposes sharia. The reality is no less wild: the rise of a North African Jewish intellectual who calls for the rehabilitation of Pétain and Vichy, while depicting immigrants and Islam as mortal threats to the Republic.