Philip Roth’s new novel, Operation Shylock, contains a preface explaining that everything in the book is true and a ”Note to the Reader” at the end explaining that everything in the book is false. So you may wonder whether the narrator, who is called Philip Roth, is Philip Roth, and whether Philip Roth actually encountered a brazen look-alike impostor calling himself Philip Roth in Jerusalem in 1988, and whether Philip Roth got nonfictionally entangled with the Israeli secret service and also with pseudo-Roth’s lubricious girlfriend, bringing her to shrill transports of ecstasy before tiptoeing quietly out of the room. Or you may prefer to tiptoe quietly out of the room, leaving Roth arguing with Roth, Roth waxing wroth with Roth.
Is it the real turtle soup or only the mock? Readers of Deception, The Counterlife, etc., will be familiar with the spectacle of Roth chasing his own ambiguous, autobiographical tail. For what it’s worth, the book has caught its niggling identity crisis from Roth’s own chronic case. The question of identity runs, or runs amok, through the novel, maiming not only Roth and the novel but several certifiably real characters and a gallery of cranks as well.
The cranks, each identified by a pet obsession that comes wrapped in a harangue, give the novel a shove of momentum every time it gets bogged down in the author’s self-absorption. Roth has a sure and scathing instinct for possessed, wayward voices. There’s pseudo-Roth, who’s pitching the theory that Jews would be better off in the Diaspora, even in East Central Europe, home of the Holocaust, than in imperiled Israel. Roth the narrator compulsively parodies all this in a funny monologue on assimilation and Irving Berlin, and his pas de deux with his mocking and adoring double begins to resemble the famous mirror sequence in the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup.
There’s also a mischievous and bewitching old man who blames everything on his fellow Jews for blaming everything on one another; a rare-book dealer obsessed with Shakespeare’s Shylock; the buxom girlfriend, a ”recovering anti-Semite”; and a bitter Palestinian professor who professes to love Diaspora Jews like his old friend Philip and to hate Israeli Jews, his ”jailers,” who are turning the country into a dull, soulless ”Jewish Belgium.”
Most of the harangues, in other words, take manic aim at Roth’s ”pervasive, engulfing, wearying topic…the Jews.” Since the ranters bat Jewish stereotypes around with reckless abandon, the book may provoke more indignation than anything Roth has written since Portnoy’s Complaint. It will be said that Roth is trying to extract comedy from bigotry and other life-and-death matters. In fact, the harangues, which tend to cancel one another out, constitute a serious enough inquiry into the Arab-Israeli moral stalemate and the hazards of Jewish powerlessness and power. It’s also true that Roth is trying to extract comedy from bigotry and other life-and-death matters. He begins with his own, presumably unembellished, life-and-death matter, a suicidal depression caused by the sleeping pill Halcion. Fate itself is the comedian, dangling before our illusory noses the illusions that we chase: ”What is the real life of man? There is none. There is only the urge to attain a real life….No, a man’s character isn’t his fate; a man’s fate is the joke that his life plays on his character.” The joke sometimes gets lost in Roth’s characteristic fictional hall of mirrors, but it’s still a pretty good one. B+