Saturday, March 30, 2019

Operation Shylock- Philip Roth

In modernist novels there is a preoccupation with the fragmentation of language and the impossibility of communication. In postmodern novels there is a preoccupation with the fragmentation of reality. Operation Shylock is perhaps one of the most creative postmodern novels I’ve read in a long time. There is such a masterful blending of fact and fiction as the novel is  framed within a distorted version of a true story. The moments of fact are more of a mirage than anything that could ground the reader to an objective reality, and the polemic set up between fact and fiction thread their way throughout the narrative in a web of unnavigable complexity.

“For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book. These are minor changes that mainly involve details of identification and locale and are of little significance to the overall story and its verisimilitude…” 1

This is how the preface begins. 

At the end there is a note to the reader, after the reader has lost all hope of deciphering any shards of objective reality, that says: 

“This book is a work of fiction…names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This confession is false.”

Which confession is false? The specific note to the reader? The entire work? The frame is ambiguous and we find ourselves lost within the complexity of a frame within a frame. It’s perfect. 

The book opens with Philip Roth learning of an impersonator making his way throughout Jerusalem (this actually did happen) and arguing for a policy of Diasporism, or the return of European Jews back to the European heartland. (Where he is sure they will be met, as the cattle cars, now repurposed agents of transportation, arrive at the station and the civilians meet the refugees with the cry of “Our Jews are back! Our Jews are back!”) As the real Philip Roth processes this news of mistaken identity he remembers how he almost lost his mind a few months back to a Halcion induced mental disintegration after knee surgery. 

This impersonator is obviously suffering from some mental collapse, but as Roth ruminates on his own recent mental collapse the line between sanity and lunacy seems to dissolve. 

“My mind began to disintegrate. The word DISINTEGRATE seemed itself to be the matter out of which my brain was constituted, and it began spontaneously coming apart. The fourteen letters, big, chunky, irregularly sized components of my brain, elaborately intertwined, tore jaggedly loose from one another, sometimes a fragment of a letter at a time, but usually in painful unpronounceable non syllabic segments of two or three, their edges roughly serrated. This mental coming apart was as distinctly physical a reality as a tooth being pulled. and the agony of it was excruciating.”  (20)

“Where is Philip Roth?” I asked aloud. “Where did he go?” I was not speaking histrionically. I asked because I wanted to know.” (22)

The drug, Halcion, has led to hallucinations and intense nightmares, and as Roth begins to try to make sense of this impersonator in Jerusalem he wonders if this is just his mind playing tricks on him once again…if perhaps the temporary insanity was only partially due to the pharmaceuticals and partially the result of his own exhausted mind. He calls the hotel and hears the voice of the impersonator, but even this doesn’t feel definitive. Who is this new Philip Roth? Could he be“…a specter created out of my fear of mentally coming apart while abroad and on my own for the first time since recovering - a nightmare about the return of a usurping self altogether beyond my control.” (29)

This fear of losing power to one’s double is played out frequently in literature, most notably for Roth in Dostoevsky, Kafka and Gogol. My favorite being Gogol’s short story “The Nose.” Kovaloff finds his nose missing one morning and as he goes about his routine in a state of shock trying to piece together how he has lost such as estimable portion of his face he witnesses a carriage pull up, a gentleman disembark…only this gentleman turns out to be Kovaloff’s very own nose! 

“The hat, adorned with a plume, showed that it held the rank of state-councillor. It was obvious that it was paying “duty-calls.” It looked round on both sides, called to the coachmen “drive on,” and got into the carriage, which drove away.” 2

Finally Kovaloff makes up his mind to approach the nose…even though it seems that his own  nose somehow now outranks him and he approaches with an attitude of deference. 

“Honorable sir,” said Kovaloff with dignity, “I do not know how I am to understand your words. It seems to me the matter is as clear as possible. Or do you wish- but you are after all my own nose!” 

The Nose looked at the Major and wrinkled its forehead. “There you are wrong, respected sir; I am myself. Besides, there can be no close relations between us. To judge by the buttons of your uniform, you must be in quite a different department to mine.” So saying, the nose turned away.” 

Despite Kovaloff’s protestations the nose will not relinquish its independence. As Kovaloff attempts to track down his nose and make sense of this new disorderly world his ontological framework slowly begins to collapse. 

Roth recognizes in his impersonator the childlike imp of Jewish folklore Moishe Pipik, loosely translated as “Moses Bellybutton” and for the rest of the novel this how the two Roth’s are distinguished. Philip Roth and the unruly and out of control ‘bellybutton” bent on usurping the identity of the real Roth and exposing his mental fragmentation. 

Roth calls his imposter to try and expose the farce. He pretends to be a journalist, Pierre Roget, the author of the Thesaurus, “the definitive book of synonyms.” And while Pipik is pretending to be Roth, Roth is pretending not to be himself. Initially this seems to be a hilarious caper, but then the sincerity of his imposter throws Roth into a small existential crisis. If this fake so truly believes himself to be the real Roth, if he’s so committed to this identity that it is not pretend but the most extreme version of truth he knows…then the only one pretending is the real Roth. As he argues with “himself” on the phone the only thing that seems definitive is the absurdity of the whole situation. 

Throughout the novel the doubling shifts, with the pretending frequently distorting reality and always saturated in the absurd. At one point when Roth learns that his imposter was a detective, as ludicrous as this seems, the explanation makes contextual sense. Then when Pipik disappears, supposedly heading back to the states, (after being defeated intellectually by the real Roth) the real Roth makes his way to the hotel room of Pipik and begins some detective work of his own. “If he could disguise himself as a writer, I could pretend to be the detective.” (252)

As Roth combs through the pristine room, looking for clues in a space that looks un-lived in, the beds still have that fresh laundry scent about them, nothing looks out of place or disordered, he finally finds a singular pubic hair on the underside of the toilet seat and a small pile of beard trimmings. He puts his findings in an envelope and then a trickling fear begins to run through his mind: what if these are simply his hairs? What if Pipik has done the same thing to him that he is know doing to Pipik? What if he came to his room and collected these samples simply to leave behind for the anticipated sleuth. 

“These envelopes and their contents remind me that the spectral, half-demented appearance was, in fact, the very earmark of its indisputable lifelike realness and that, when life looks least like what it’s supposed to look like, it may then be most like whatever it is.” (253)

While Pipik is offered as the double of Philip Roth, the uncontrollable appendage wandering around and wreaking havoc, Shakespeare’s Shylock is offered as a double for Jewish identity as a whole. For four hundred years Jews have been living within the shadow of this literary imposter, introduced to the world with the lines “Three thousand ducats.” Lines pronounced in such an oily and innuendoed voice by Mr. Charles Macklin that he “instantly aroused, with just those three words, all of the audience’s hatred of Shylock’s race.” (275) 

“Today a Shylockless Venice, tomorrow a Shylockless world. As the stage directions so succinctly puts it after Shylock has been robbed of his daughter, stripped of his wealth, and compelled to convert by his Christian betters: Exit Jew…” (276)

This whole treatise on Shylock is given by a bookseller, Supposnik, in the lobby of the hotel (after Roth’s detective work has been completed) as Roth is attempting to make his way back to the trial of Ivan the Terrible. Like so many climactic moments throughout the novel the movement forward is impeded by an immense digression. Here in the lobby, person after person presents themselves to Roth who finds himself trapped in constant dialogue while trying to escape. School children pepper him with questions: “What comes first, nationality or Jewish identity? Tell us about your identity crisis.” (268)

Identity is voiced over and over again, the refrain for the inevitable mental implosion. 

The oily hatred directed historically at the Jew is reexamined throughout the trial of John Demjanjuk, who is argued to be none other than Ivan the Terrible, the infamous guard and champion of brutality that personally was responsible for the deaths of nearly a million Jews at the death camp of Treblinka. 

The defense argues that Demjanjuk and Ivan the Terrible are two different people, the evidence is worthless and the identity photos are unreliable…but at what point does the absurdity of the trial breakdown into merely a show trial, an attempt to find a singular scapegoat for the atrocity of the holocaust? Will a single scapegoat ever be enough? The defense buries the trial in meaningless details, they spend two days “arguing over the paper clip on the identity card to establish if the paper clip is authentic or not.” (340) If the identity and authenticity of a paperclip can not be determined how likely will the trial ever come to consensus about the identity and authenticity of a real person? 

The trial is reimagined in a dream sequence Roth has about the water company demanding he pay $128 million for his water bill. He wakes up, slumped in a chair, his skin has become the physical diary of the last few days, collecting every smell along the way and the stench of must and feces is overpowering. Smell is objectively true, a sense you can’t manipulate and he smells of all of “them”: 

“The shitting driver. The fat lawyer. Pipik. He was the smell of incense and old, dried blood. I smelled of every second of every minute of my last twenty-four hours, smelled like the container of something forgotten in the refrigerator whose lid you pop open after three weeks. Not until I decompose in my coffin will I ever be so immensely pungent again.” (261)

But after a shower, when the smell has been eradicated…he contemplated whether it ever actually existed, or did he simply dream it? 

I bathe. 
Two words. 
I dress in clean clothes. 
Five words. 
I no longer smell. 
Four words. 
Eleven words, and I no longer know if I ever did smell like my corpse. 

So, in a Rothian style, we are confronted with the reliability of memory. Do all the eye witnesses of Ivan the Terrible truly remember this senior man sitting before them? This family man from Ohio with the unblemished record? When Roth walks into the courtroom and is first confronted with John Demjanjuk he says “There he was,” and begins a two and a half page imagined reverie of Ivan the Terrible, as a young twenty-two year old Ukrainian, crushing skulls and bludgeoning to death his victims. Roth is riding the hatred, bottled up and waiting for an unleashing, a focus for its wrath and vengeance. But John Demjanjuk, as he sits there chewing his cud, seems so harmless. So meaningless…so banal. Has he changed? Is he a different person? After a six part repetition of “There he was.” he ends with “Or wasn’t.” 

As Roth is caught in this paradox between “Was” and “Wasn’t” he thinks the only thing that is certain is that while justice may be served by this trial, John Demjanjuk’s children will be plunged into a world incensed by hate- and the curse will be revived. 

Roth’s dream of a $128 million water bill becomes a metaphor for the absurdity of the trial. How can one man be responsible for a water bill of $128 million? How could any one person use that much water? The enormity of the accusation becomes the perfect obfuscation to hide behind. The suburban father can hide all the transgressions and regrets of his youth behind a bill that is too enormous to fathom. “Everything putrid in the past just snaps off and falls away. Only America happened. Only the children and friends and the church and the garden and the job have happened.” (261) How can he be both? Was he there or wasn’t he? 

Either way the trial has morphed into something unmanageable.  Demjanjuk sits there unconcerned, with the occasional smile on his face he seems to say: 

“…$128 million worth of water? You sent me the bill for the city of Cleveland. You sent me the bill for the state of Ohio. You sent me the bill for the whole fucking world! Look at me in this courtroom, under all this, and still at the end of the day all I have sipped from my glass is maybe three or four ounces of water. I’m not saying  that I don’t take a drink of water when I’m thirsty, of course I do…but do I look to you like somebody who could be wasteful of water to the tune of $128 million?…There has been a mistake. I am just an average suburban consumer of water and I should not be on trial for this gigantic bill!” (262) 

In the end what we are left with is a compilation of parodies. The detective novel, seeking to unravel a mystery or a crime, is left with two envelopes containing ambiguous pubic hairs. Nostalgia becomes a joke, as unreliable as memory and fed on our current preoccupations and hatreds. And lastly, and perhaps most dishearteningly, justice has become little more than a parody, a circus act, an illusion of smoke screens and tightrope walkers. Zionism, Diasporism and all the other “isms” have been submerged in the most “powerful of all the senseless influences on human affairs and that is “Pipikism”, the anti tragic force that inconsequentializes  everything.” The radicals and truth tellers, the prophets and sages are little more than disembodied noses and bellybuttons, walking around as autonomous individuals, so removed from their contextualized base that everything they espouse has become meaningless. 

Or is it? For postmodern novels there really is no such thing as a simple thesis statement. And after 398 pages as we have witnessed every serious thing get turned into a farce, we are left struggling with the ambiguity of everything. 

1. All quotations from: Roth, Philip. Operation Shylock. New York: Random House, 1993. 
2. Nikolai Gogol "The Nose":

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