BOOK REVIEW / A vanity affair: Philip Roth does not easily tire of his own brilliance. In his new novel, he gives us at least two versions of himself

THE FINAL trick in Philip Roth's new novel, a big untidy box of tricks with smoke and mirrors, is its conventional disclaimer 'this book is a work of fiction . . .', to which has been added a new last sentence: 'This confession is false.' It's a rejigging of the small cerebral torture of the Cretan Liar conundrum (All Cretans are liars; I am a Cretan), and it is typical of Philip Roth's grand manner in this novel that his departing gesture is to close the door so firmly in his reader's face.

Operation Shylock hinges on the premise that in Jerusalem in 1988 - where John Demjanjuk was insisting that he was not Ivan the Terrible - a Chicago private detective with terminal cancer was insisting that he was the Philip Roth. From this breeding pair of lives and counterlives, Roth generates a string of ingenious personations, forgeries and doubles; building a looking-glass house where the opposite always also holds true, where every ego meets its alter and every thesis its antithesis.

Alter-Roth steals the novelist's fame in order to preach diasporism, an inverted reflection of Zionism that calls on Jews to return to the homelands of their forefathers, in Russia, Poland and Germany. Novelist-Roth finds himself to be a minor character in a plot authored by a Mossad spymaster. At one point in this counter-fiction, Roth is kidnapped from his hotel and left alone in a schoolroom, on whose blackboard is a text in Hebrew, a language he cannot read. It is (as we know, if we've read the novel's epigraphs) the verse from Genesis in which Jacob, left alone, wrestles until daybreak with his double, the angel.

Roth has tried to erect a customs-free zone in which verifiable autobiography and fantastic fiction can mingle on neutral territory. The book's narrative tone is briskly matter-of-fact, and it is grounded in the literal - in Roth's marriage to Claire Bloom, his Halcion-induced crack-up, his friendships with people like Theodore Solotaroff and the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, his Connecticut house, his published books. A conversation with Appelfeld, originally published in the New York Times Book Review, is woven into the text of the novel, along with snatches of the transcript of the Demjanjuk trial and excerpts from the pitiably banal travel diaries of Leon Klinghoffer, the man murdered during the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. That the Klinghoffer material turns out to have been faked, possibly by Saul Bellow, only goes to prove the point that the truest-seeming is the most feigning, and it serves as a warning to unwary readers that the surface of this novel is as slippery and treacherous as Roth can make it.

The name he attaches to his looking-glass house is Israel, here a strangely underfurnished country which Roth, his attention apparently otherwise engaged, neglects to describe or bring alive on the page. You get street directions and references to well-known monuments, but you can't see or smell the place, which exists as hardly more than a bare auditorium for the debates and tirades that form the substance of the book. This high-handed way with the landscape extends to Roth's treatment of his characters, whom he ranges along the stage like so many six-foot-tall loudspeakers. When the novelist has a message to broadcast, he pipes it through one or other of these conveniently passive instruments. No one - with the conspicuous exception of the novelist himself - is granted a credible fictional life of his or her own. Towards the end, the spymaster- loudspeaker, Smilesburger, volunteers for service as a character in Roth's novel: 'Represent me in your book however you like. Do you prefer to romanticise me or to demonise me? Do you wish to heroise me or do you want instead to make your jokes? Suit yourself.' If only he had added but make me real] he would have done a great kindness to Roth's readers.

The result, despite its rococo fictive exterior, reads less like a novel than an insomniac's notebook of swarming night-thoughts - arguments with oneself, imaginary Op-Ed pieces, unsent letters, parodies, revenges - and the best of these take off as documents in their own right. There is Roth's modest proposal of diasporism, piped through the alter-Roth loudspeaker: 'You know what will happen in Warsaw, at the railway station, when the first trainload of Jews returns? There will be crowds to welcome them. People will be jubilant. People will be in tears. They will be shouting, 'Our Jews are back] Our Jews are back]' ' Or there is the fine tirade delivered through a US-educated Palestinian loudspeaker named George Ziad (an alter-Edward Said?): 'This state has no moral identity. It has forfeited its moral identity, if it ever had any to begin with. By relentlessly institutionalising the Holocaust it has even forfeited its claim to the Holocaust] The state of Israel has drawn the last of its moral credit out of the bank of the dead six million . . .' Or there is the happy forgery of the Klinghoffer travel diaries: 'Took tour through Greek port of Piraeus and city of Athens. Guide was excellent. The city of Athens is a modern bustling city. Lots of traffic. Went up to the Acropolis . . .' Because there are no characters strong enough to demand their own say in the matter, and no real developing drama in the book to keep these rhetorical flights in check, they can, and often do, go on interminably. Roth is not a writer who tires easily of his own brilliance, and even the dazzled reader finds himself dulling to the show when it continues way past time without an interval.

The bare landscape, the characters who are not characters, leave only one real object of attention: the person of the author. The plot, such as it is, turns on a theft, and the purloined ring in this case is the fame of Philip Roth. In the cancerous detective, Roth has created his own most devoted fan, an undiscriminating ideal reader who loves all of Roth's books equally and who has suffered vicariously every bad (or, as Roth would say, stupid) review. Who else would remember, with outrage, that Portnoy's Complaint ('the book of the decade') failed to be nominated for a National Book Award because it was torpedoed by Harvey Swados ('he called the shots on that committee and had it in for you but good')? One might have expected him to be treated as a paragon. He is a criminal, not because he steals Roth's 'identity' (never was Roth more ebulliently Rothlike than in this book), but because he tries to filch the novelist's worldly prestige, an importantly different commodity.

By personating Philip Roth the novelist, Philip Roth the detective is able to pay a state visit to Lech Walesa and gain an audience with the Pope. By creating Philip Roth the detective, Philip Roth the novelist is able to pay repeated visits on his own celebrity, to preface his own name with the phrase 'the eminent novelist', to fill the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem with eager readers of his novels and journalists queueing for interviews. The hotel desk clerk says: 'We have had nothing like it since Sammy Davis Jr came to pray at the Wailing Wall.' To which the novelist replies: 'The comparison is too flattering. You exaggerate my importance.' Twice in the course of the book Roth's name is canvassed as a leading contender for the Nobel Prize.

Fame is an interesting affliction; certainly more interesting than alcoholism. Drunk writers, from Malcolm Lowry to Raymond Carver, have written freely about being drunk, and Roth, schooled in controversial prominence since the appearance of his first short stories, is ideally equipped to write a kind of Under the Volcano of literary celebrity. But Operation Shylock is not that book. Time and again it seems merely to finger Roth's fame with something far too close to reverence for comfort.

Wrong] cries someone I had better call the implied author: That was a vulgar desk clerk speaking; or That was the detective, stupid] Can't you tell an unreliable narrator when you meet one? For the elaborate rhetorical machinery of the book, on which Roth has lavished an obsessive amount of ingenuity and more, is designed to cloud and bend and ambiguate to the point where every sentence is a probable forgery and there's always another narrator behind the narrator. Like the Klinghoffer diaries, everything in Operation Shylock comes sheathed in literary irony like so much bubble-wrap.

You hold the author responsible? Wrong. The author has joined the Victim Culture. Halfway through the novel, in a particularly Cretan gesture, Roth pleads not guilty to his own excesses; he wraps the bubble-wrap in more bubble-wrap. 'The writer,' he writes,

slips silently out of the plot on the grounds of its general implausibility, a total lack of gravity, reliance at too many key points on unlikely coincidence, an absence of inner coherence, and not even the most tenuous evidence of evidence resembling a serious meaning or purpose. The story so far is frivolously plotted, overplotted, for his taste altogether too freakishly plotted, with outlandish events so wildly careening around every corner that there is nowhere for intelligence to establish a foothold and develop a perspective . . . They'll blame it (compassionately, no doubt) on your Halcion madness the way Jekyll blamed Hyde on his drugs; they'll say, 'He never recovered from that breakdown and this was the result. It had to be the breakdown - not even he was that dreadful a novelist.'

This is a book about which one can say little with much confidence, so laboriously has Philip Roth toiled to make it reviewer-proof. Describe its tone - wrong. Describe what seems to happen in it - wrong. Describe its ostensible subject - wrong. Describe its genre: fact or fiction - wrong.

I can think of no novel - and certainly none of Roth's - that comes close to matching it for the layer on layer of protective irony in which something or other here has been cocooned. What it certainly shows is a novelist in the grip of a mania for secrecy and occlusion, for ambiguity for its own sake, for the disdainful elusiveness of the Sphinx in a bad mood. What it suggests is that the something here parcelled up with fanatic, if clumsy, caution must be a very delicate treasure indeed. One is led to suppose that this something is - at the least - the reflexive, self-cancelling identity of the post-Holocaust Jew, but by the end the steamrollered and bamboozled reader may come to suspect that if the last piece of wrapping were ever to be unfolded, all it would disclose would be a purloined vanity ring.

'Operation Shylock: A Confession' is published by Cape at pounds 14.99

(Illustrations omitted)

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