Saturday, July 5, 2014

Roth's "Operation Shylock" and the Usurping Self


(photo taken May, 2003)

Philip Roth's Operation Shylock is all about the "imposturing other" and the "usurping self."

"The law says that a person's identity is his private property and can't be appropriated by somebody else" (from Ch.3, titled "We). The novel was published in 1993, before "identity theft" on the Internet became a tangible, palpable swindle. The identity theft in the novel is ontological, as it is in the Russian writers who worked out the theme of the double in the nineteenth century.

In Gogol a nose separates itself from a man's face and takes on an independent existence, gallivanting merrily about town as if he (Mr. Nose) really existed. Heavily influenced by Gogol's writing, Dostoevsky, early in his career writes "The Double," the story of a man and his rather nasty alter ego in the flesh.

In the Dostoevsky novella a big issue is that of sanity/insanity. The critic James Rice once commented that Dostoevsky was not in his right mind when he wrote this phantasmagorical thing, so the book is both about insanity in fiction and insanity in fact.

At least in the way Operation Shylock is told, by Philip Roth, who describes the coming apart of Philip Roth under the influence of the drug Halcion, and later the discovery, by Philip Roth, that there is another Philip Roth impersonating him in Jerusalem, whereupon the "Philip Roth" narrator goes to Israel to confront his double--in the way all this is told we have another book about insanity in fiction and insanity in "reality," if there is any such thing as real "reality."

And with that we take a big step toward the writer who proclaimed that the word "reality" should always be written in quotes--Vladimir Nabokov.

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