Operation Shylock. Philip Roth.

Roth P. Operation Shylock. Vintage (paper) 1994, first published 1993.

An article in the New Yorker sent me looking for The Ghost Writer by Roth as I was getting ready for a vacation, but the bookstore seemed to have every one of his dozens of other novels except the one I wanted and I opted for Shylock. Sorry, although I’m quite a fan of Philip Roth, I found this book tedious and annoying, relieved only momentarily by fabulous jags of comedy.

There was a silly game of the Orson Welles War-of-the-Worlds type apparently played on publication of this suggesting that Roth had actually been involved in a Israel-Palestine spy episode, and the plot and characters seem clumsily to me to advance that, probably ironically but eventually who cares? It’s glorification of the enigma of Philip Roth either way. He appears in person and along with him is a look-alike double impersonating him and selling a silly idea about reverse-Zionism where all the Jews are supposed to go back to Poland etc. Demjanjuk, accused as Ivan the Terrible of the Nazi death camps, is on trial and this preoccupies the “real” Philip Roth as well, and various troll-like characters appear, one eventually an Israeli intelligence master-spy who recruits Roth to go to Egypt.

Expected from a writer of this era and ability are “intellectually” interesting suggestions of guilt and its ambiguity, multiple iterations of selves within selves, serious politics, Freudian alter ego and doppelganger, a good go at representation and impersonation, and the limitless and finally maybe scarily ambiguous perfidy once one enters the business of falsehood. I liked the start in a drug-industry-induced paranoid nightmare, and I concede some beguiling complexity in the whole significance of what happens. Hey, what in hell is really going on here?  I have some sympathy with that.

But finally the whole thing doesn’t hang together for me. There are pages and pages of diatribes on Jewishness, Judaism, Zionism, and so on which come out of the mouths of some of the characters rather than being credibly woven into their lives as it is in some of Roth’s other fiction. Even sex is two-dimensional and cookie-cut away from the rest of the narrative.   He produces (in stimulating description) a sexually perfect woman, girlfriend of the second Roth, and describes seducing her, the success of which is a bit too offhand.   I Suppose I imagine that if he’s really that good he ought to have a sense of humor about it or maybe ironically apologize. That bogus seduction scene sealed for me the doom of the story’s being partly true-biographical, even before I read any of the critiques.

An elderly taxi driver returning him home in the dark of night through dangerous Palestinian-Israeli territory stops the car, appears to be flashing his flashlight, and walks away. Roth is terrified and prepares to be shot on the spot by Israeli soldiers (eventually the soldiers appear although nothing dangerous happens) but it turns out the old taxi driver has bowel problems and is just taking a crap. A million-dollar cheque is handed to Roth and he beautifully cites Dostoevsky whose supporting heroine in Crime and Punishment prompts from her sleazy rapist-seducer, by producing a pistol and pointing it at his chest: “This changes everything.”

Apart from laughing-out-loud moments like those I spent most of my time hoping to find out what was going to happen, trying to keep track of the disparate and interweaving plot elements that eventually didn’t lead me anywhere interesting, and wishing the story would end. 7.2/4.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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