Academic journal article Shofar

Philip Roth's Fictions of Self-Exposure

Academic journal article Shofar

Philip Roth's Fictions of Self-Exposure

Article excerpt

The article examines Roth's exploitation of his own persona through self-reference in his writing. It argues that throughout his career, Roth has challenged readers' expectations of the truth value of narratives that simultaneously expose, conceal, and rewrite the autobiographical subject-the "I" in the text. Roth has thereby not only explored postmodern epistemologies of identity, but also has offered fresh angles on the problem of writing the self in a variety of genres: from autobiography and memoir to dialogue and reflexive fiction.

Among Philip Roth's most startling gestures in a career that has not lacked for surprises is his decision in Deception (1990) and Operation Shylock (1993) to refer to his main character as "Philip" in the former and "Philip Roth" in the latter, breaking decorum about the illusion of an invented persona who directs and dominates the narratives.1 Each novel advertises itself as a life-history, offering its "I" as both ubiquitous eye and actor, and I think we are to retain awareness of the speaker as simultaneously a conventional narrative mask and the historical Philip Roth. Few writers dare to name themselves at the center of their inventions, which is why it is so arresting to find a work of fiction that pronounces its author's name within the text. Because readers are frequently tempted, from either prurient interest or more impartial motives, to discern autobiography in a fictional narrative, most writers of fiction seem to labor out of modesty, a sense of privacy, or a display of imaginative capacities to erase the traces of tiieir own lives from their work.

Not so Philip Roth. Especially since his invention of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth has encouraged readers to interpret the narrative voice of his fiction as a self-revealing "I," a Roth surrogate who, by the time oí Deception and Operation Shylock, is no longer a surrogate but is "Roth" himself. Roth is preoccupied with self-performance, with projections of the selfs voice into the other - with, for example, the figure of impersonation that appears in The Counterlife (1987) or of ventriloquism that appears in Sabbath's Theater (1995).2 What I argue here is not that Roth is, strictly, writing autobiographically, but rather that he makes capital out of his readers' inclinations toward biographical interpretations of his work. The "Roth" in the text must always be read in quotation marks, even when seemingly most unmediated, in order to underscore the indeterminacy of the "Roth" who appears in each narrative and to distinguish this narrativized "Roth" from the man who writes the books and lives in Connecticut - a distinction the texts labor to obscure. I would argue further mat there is a recognizable arc to Roth's career in regard to what I call here his fictions of self-exposure. His interest in the place of the autobiographical in fiction can be traced with some precision to show how he arrives at naming himself in the novels of the late 1980s and early 1 990s and then exhausts the need for self-reference to return to the guises of the overtly fictive.3 Along the way, Roth's gestures of self-exposure create peculiar tensions within the novels as well as within the reader-text relationship, allowing inquiry not only into me meaning of "autobiography" but also more broadly into the relationship between fiction and fact and into the process by which readers interpret evidence.

Roth's interest in exploiting autobiographical references - in offering "Roth" to varying degrees within narrative contexts - seems largely to have emerged from his entanglement with his readers during his first years of publication. Some early readers accused him of mining untransformed material from his life, of writing autobiography every time he wrote a novel; he was castigated for doing what in fact his readers mistakenly took him to be doing - for exposing himself and those nearest him. Roth was charged with antisemitism and self-hatred after the appearance of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), and the essay "Writing about Jews" (1963) attests to the sensitive nerve that his readers hit. …

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