Texts, Lives, and Bellybuttons: Philip Roth's Operation Shylock and the Renegotiation of Subjectivity

By Royal, Derek Parker | Shofar, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Texts, Lives, and Bellybuttons: Philip Roth's Operation Shylock and the Renegotiation of Subjectivity


Royal, Derek Parker, Shofar


This essay argues that the texts and countertexts that make up much of Philip Roth's writing complement the interplay between autobiography and fiction. Roth's post-Zuckerman books, specifically Operation Shylock: A Confession, create not only a text of the self and a countertext of the other, but also countertexts to the text of the self. While such a postmodern awareness of the self is both honest and potentially liberating, there is nonetheless a danger in losing a sense of self and community. In Operation Shylock, Roth attempts to come to terms with this problem by anchoring questions of identity largely within the Jewish ethnic community. What is more, Roth's text demonstrates that the relationship between autobiography and fiction is most illustrative when it provides us with a means to observe how authors construct their reality and thereby their lives.

It is not an exaggeration to state that Philip Roth is obsessed with the play between the world that is inscribed on the page and the world that is not. Ever since My Life as a Man he has engaged in a relentless negotiation between life and art, a metafictional realm of instability where narrative is an uncertain combination of creator and creation. Critics have accused him of filling his fictional worlds witii nothing more than a thinly veiled chronicle of his own life and the real lives around him. Indeed, his Zuckerman novels and the "autobiographical" works that followed have been dismissed as mere personal - and, some would argue, narcissistic - disclosure. But Roth is engaged in a more philosophical investigation, an exploration that highlights interrelationship between autobiography and fiction. He calls this textual preoccupation, in one of his earlier essays, "the relationship between the written and the unwritten world":

The worlds that I feel myself shuttling between every day couldn't be more succinctly described. Back and forth, back and forth, bearing fresh information, detailed instructions, garbled messages, desperate inquiries, naive expectations, baffling challenges ... in all, cast somewhat in the role of the courier Barnabas, whom the Land Surveyor K. enlists to traverse the steep winding road between the village and the castle in Kafka's novel about the difficulties of getting through.1

Roth has spent the better part of his career traveling between these two worlds, so many times in fact that one would be hard pressed to tell which is me village and which is the castle. Is the castle a metaphor for me written world, the modernist high ground of art, as the young Nathan Zuckerman would believe; or is it instead the domain of "the facts," the lived world from which art ultimately emanates and takes its sustenance? For literary critics, of course, this distinction is moot. The "garbled messages" and "baffling challenges" themselves are the points of departure, arrival, and the message, all rolled into one.

This relationship between the written and the unwritten worlds has gained attention, at least within Roth studies, in recent years, especially when viewed in light of how autobiographies are constructed. The publication of an autobiography, especially one from the bright spotlights of the entertainment industry (and, given both the "scandal" of Portnoy's Complaint and his more recent breakup with actress Claire Bloom, Roth has found himself a reluctant celebrity), always brings with it both a sense of titillating expectation and a high risk. Will the book be nothing more than an exaggerated kissand-tell-all, leaving a trail of publicity-damaged figures in its wake; or will it be an earnest attempt at recreating a life that reveals just as much about the act of writing autobiography as it does of its subject matter? When Roth published The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography in 1988, he was doing outright what many had already accused him of doing most of his career: writing about himself. In the highly revealing last section of The Facts, where Nathan Zuckerman questions his creator's autobiographical intentions, Zuckerman tells him "You've written metamorphoses of yourself so many times, you no longer have any idea what you are or ever were.

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