Academic journal article MELUS

The Double, Comic Irony, and Postmodernism in Philip Roth's 'Operation Shylock.'(Ethnic Humor)

Academic journal article MELUS

The Double, Comic Irony, and Postmodernism in Philip Roth's 'Operation Shylock.'(Ethnic Humor)

Article excerpt

Critics have praised Philip Roth as one of the major Jewish American novelists, together with Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. Reviewers often compare Roth's style to that of a stand-up comic. His career has been summarized as starting in 1959 as a comic realist, Theodore Dreiser meets Jackie Mason, and culminating in something much more postmodern, the deconstructionists meet Jackie Mason. Roth's early, realistic novels (Goodbye Columbus, 1959; When She Was Good, 1967; Portnoy's Complaint, 1969) and his political and social satires (Our Gang, 1971; The Great American Novel, 1973) are more traditional than his novels of the 80s and 90s (The Ghost Writer, 1979; Zuckerman Unbound, 1981; The Anatomy Lesson, 1983; The Prague Orgy, 1985; The Counterlife, 1987; Deception, 1990; Operation Shylock, 1993; Sabbath's Theater, 1995).

The subject matter of the later novels is the comic handling of fictional systems themselves. Novels engage in postmodern experimentation with multiple narrators in terms of their comic consciousness of their own fictivity. These novels explore all possible ways of doing narrative, as well as the connection between the told and the teller (exhibiting Roth's playfully comic use of details from his own life and even the use of his own name, as in Deception and Operation Shylock).

Roth's comedy and satire are often directed at Jews and their customs. His use of Jewish stereotypes for scathing humor has alienated and angered some members of the Jewish community shaken by the Holocaust. The eminent critic Irving Howe, in "Philip Roth Reconsidered," called Portnoy's Complaint "a vulgar book" (77) and denounced Roth's shallow treatment of jewish life. The essay set the tone for criticism by the Jewish citizenry, which was enraged by Roth's use of offensive traits for hyperbolic comedy, e.g., materialism in Goodbye Columbus; sexual preoccupation in Portnoy's Complaint; vitriolic quarreling in Operation Shylock; scandalous philandering in Sabbath's Theater.

Roth's fiction, his interviews, and his essays (many collected in Reading Myself and Others [19751)(1) touch on the comic connection between the writer's life experiences and the creative process. Treating the writer's predicament with humor, the narrator in Deception observes: "I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction...let them decide what it is or it isn't" (190). In many respects, Roth's novels are examples of metafiction; that is, their subject is the creative process itself. This metafictional preoccupation with the creative process has become popular with postmodern writers like William Gass (especially in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country [19681) and John Hawkes (especially in Second Skin [1964]).

Postmodern novelists usually mix genres -- history, fiction, non-fiction, film -- and they delight in exploring the contrarieties and confusion of twentieth century society. They are encyclopedic in scope, utilizing details from elite and from popular culture. And they show an antirationalist and an antirealist emphasis, as they look to the word, or, as William Gass explains, "the world within the word,"(12) to determine a metareality. Meaning, if it exists at all, exists only in the words and the structure we impose on language.

Philip Roth, like other postmodern novelists, uses comic irony to mock rational methods of solving contemporary problems, particularly problems with regard to traditional Jewish issues that people hold dear. In Operation Shylock, we laugh at the reductio ad absurdum of the farcical escapades of protagonist Philip Roth and his double, or alter ego, Moishe Pipik as they meet with Israelis and Arabs in various homes and secret quarters and streets. The actions amuse us and ease our anxiety over the topsy-turvy quality of Roth's Post World War II society and ours. And, for a while, we believe that this novel's polemical orientation, like that of other postmodern fiction (e. …

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