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4.2 out of 5 stars
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on June 17, 2004
This is the second Philip Roth book that I have read in which the author himself is a main character. In the other one, Patrimony, Roth came across as a humble, compassionate, good-natured human being. In this one, he comes across as an egomaniacal, paranoid, self-aggrandizing jerk. I've read more than a half dozen of his novels, and I consider him to be the best American writer alive today, so the bitter taste that I was left with after reading this book likely won't last long and won't tarnish my overall impression of him as a writer. But still, I have to wonder how much of the character of Roth in this book is fiction, and how much of it is true. Despite its pretense of being a true confession, this book is obviously a work of fiction, so one could conclude that the character of Roth is just that - a character and nothing more. But to dismiss without further exploration would be to oversimplify it. After all, this is Roth writing about Roth, and surely he made this a first-person account for a reason. Obviously he wanted to use this writer-as-character technique as a mechanism for conveying his personal opinions. And on top of that, he creates another character of the exact same name and similar in appearance to serve as a foil or alter ego. Neither character, unfortunately, comes across as sympathetic - one on purpose, but not the other. The Roth who narrates this book is cruel, selfish, self-centered, and immature. I lost count of how many times the character commented on his quest for the Nobel Prize - always in a facetious, backhanded sort of way to make it seem like it wasn't a big deal to him.
My other main criticism of this book - and I think I'm allowed to write this since one side of my family is Jewish - is that this book is too, um, Jewish. Roth is obviously known as an author who writes about the Jewish experience, so it's no surprise that this theme appears in yet another of his books. But here it's not just a theme - the whole book is about being Jewish. I have to wonder if that will limit the appeal of this book to a narrow audience. Even I found it tedious at times. I much preferred his other books in which the Jewish experience was one element of a much broader, deeper message.
That said, I still recommend this book. After all, it is Philip Roth, and his expert craftsmanship is evident throughout the novel. The humor that he is known for pops up every now and then as well, though not as much, perhaps, as in his other (better) books.
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on July 28, 2003
What makes Roth so special? While so many other aging writers resort to rehashing older themes, descend into old fogey sentimentality, or simply fade away altogether, Roth only gets stronger. Stronger and more assured in his style and stronger in the subjects he tackles. "Operation Shylock" finds Roth once again challenging the reader's perceptions about fiction and non-fiction. The challenge lies in not letting the distinction distract you from the brilliant story that unfolds. Roth is on top of his game in every respect, from the cat and mouse games of the various "Philip Roths" to the wonderfully varied supporting cast of characters. Roth's narration, like Zuckerman's in recent years, is an orgy of hilarious speculation and theorizing...trying to work out every possible thread of a situation, the processes of a hyperactive mind laid out before the reader. If you don't like it, then you don't like it, and you probably don't like Roth. If you haven't read him before, and the basic plot interests you, this may be a good place to start. "American Pastoral" was great, "The Human Stain" even better, but I feel "Operation Shylock" ranks with "The Counterlife" as his best work. Very highly recommended.
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on March 6, 2002
Roth is the undefeated (probably undefeatable) champion of literary experimentation, and Operation Shylock is perhaps his most successful, most outrageous experiment to date. The author-as-character, fact-as-fiction-as-fact motif has been done before, but rarely with such skill and never with such hilarious results. It's part international espionage, part political commentary, part cultural exposition, part farce, and all parody; Roth's egotistical, though often self-depracating voice keeps the story chugging powerfully along. Par usual, Roth's greatest zinger of all is saved for the last few pages. I would award Shylock five stars, if it were not for the fact that I simply can't (and never have been able to) get used to his hyperbolic style--all the ranting and raving and melodrama can occasionally be tiresome. But one doesn't normally read Roth for his elegant prose; one reads him for his ingenuity, his outrageousness, and his courage. And in this regard, Shylock certainly will not disappoint.
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on August 28, 2000
Philip Roth's novel "Operation Shylock" presents a two-sided controversial discussion about the justification of the existence of the state of Israel. The protagonist is Roth himself, who has just overcome a period of Halcion-induced depression and is preparing to fly to Israel on a journalistic assignment to interview a Holocaust-surviving author. Coinciding with this event is the trial of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian American citizen extradited to Israel, who is alleged to have been a sadistic SS guard branded Ivan the Terrible at the Treblinka death camp during World War II.
Just before making his trip, Roth hears that somebody in Israel is using his name to promote a new Diaspora, imploring the Ashkenazi Jews to return to Europe to reclaim their cultural heritage. Once in Israel, it's not long before he encounters his impersonator after attending a session of Demjanjuk's trial. The impersonator tells Roth that he is a private detective from Chicago and that he runs a counseling service to "cure" anti-Semites, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous in its purpose. Accompanying him in Israel is his girlfriend and a former anti-Semite, a confused American woman with a checkered past, who was his nurse when he was a cancer patient.
Roth's impersonator sees himself as the influential equal and ideological opposite of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism. He advocates Diasporism because he fears that the state of Israel is perceived by the world as Jewish tyranny over Arabs and will lead to a second Holocaust. How the real Roth reacts to this premise develops the rest of the novel, which, as the title implies, shapes itself into a subtle spy story. Some interesting supporting characters are introduced to contribute to the debate and clever plot devices are employed for intrigue.
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on March 10, 1999
While some of the Zuckerman novels, like The Counterlife, focus on ambiguities of identity, Operation Shylock carries its subject to a whole new level. Philip Roth meets Philip Roth in a story that, despite the end disclaimer (and a possible disclaimer's disclaimer, "This confession is false"), may have happened. Even at the end there's no way to be certain.

Actually, this may have been Roth's "last gasp" in the humor department, judging by his last few books, but if so, it's perhaps the funniest of them all. Some of the situations here are so absurd, the dialogue so hilarious, that one wonders what Roth could've done as a syndicated humor columnist. As it is, Roth manages to concoct scenes that are simultaneously profound, moving, and hilarious.

The best scenes, though, are the soul-searching ones, especially the remarkable trial scene in which the Roth character (or whatever) delves into his own thoughts, then into the thoughts of those around him, in a mesmerizing way. Roth is an enormously talented writer, and his ability to depict the mind of someone (or himself) is simply remarkable.

In his last few books Roth has let loose with his prose, and reading Operation Shylock is like watching a piano or violin virtuoso who is so good s/he seems to transcend us mere mortals. His ability to weave long, complex sentences that don't become obscure for a second is something few other writers in the English language have ever matched. Should've won the Pullitzer.
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on April 5, 1997
A masterpiece. Roth weaves a spellbinding thriller ridden with sardonic wit and the ironic guile of middle-aged man caught in the whirlpool of an identity crisis. Everything that Roth has believed in and explored in previous novels is brought to the test -- i.e. sexuality, politics, heritage. No sentimentality. Brutal observation of self. The man puts himself under a microscope. Lets the reader peek through the eyehole. Roth fragments himself because he is a fragmented man. Doesn't shy away from the shards. Only pokes himself with the razor points and lets himself bleed. Having spent Thanksgiving with Roth post the publication of Shylock, I can only testify that Roth is a study of opposites: cruel and generous, callous and tender, cynical and yet a "believer". In retrospect, this book should've garnered the Pulitzer. And Updike should've been shot
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on May 19, 2001
Exploring every conceivable aspect of identity -- of the self, and of the state of Israel -- this novel is a tour de force. I couldn't find Roth's "The Human Stain" after hearing an NPR review, so I picked up "Operation Shylock" instead; it's my first reading of Roth. I'd agree with others' descriptions of some slow or complex passages, but over time I came to view these as almost purposely placed: Roth toying with his own medium as he dances across the fiction/non-fiction line. Comparing this novel with other recent semi-autobiographical works -- like Paul Theroux's "My Other Life" -- I found "Operation Shylock" stayed with me longer and addressed deeper themes. Possibly not the best _introduction_ to Roth, "Operation Shylock" is still extremely funny and extremely intelligent, with an ending that sent me reeling.
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on July 31, 2000
Amazing.... Philip Roth has pulled off the unthinkable. He writes a book with no ending and he gets away with it. He not only gets away with it, he does it with style. Boring at times, brilliant at others, this book works to a nerve racking frenzy, and then Roth cuts us loose. It's almost as if he gets writer's block right before the last chapter! But that remains the beauty of this work. The use of "fact or fiction ?" is what guides us through to the end only to take a twist that will send you silly. Highly effective.....that is if you can get through the lecture-like portions. If only this book was trimmed by about 75 pages or so. It's dragging portions is what drags my rating down to three stars
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on March 18, 2002
I loved this book! Perhaps, I award it five stars because I "read" the audio version. I imagine it could be a tedious read. However, I listened to Operation Shylock while commuting to work--I shivered at its brilliance, gasped aloud each time I reached my destination and had to turn it off. As one whose profession it is to sort through the psychological complexities of neurosis, psychosis, the shifting perceptions and altered realities of the mentally ill, I found the minds of the twin Philip Roth's as facinating as any patient I've ever had the honor to follow into the dark abyss of self-doubt, creativity, confusion, and triumph. This is one of those rare books I will read again.
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on August 13, 1999
After hearing Opeartion Shylock on tape, the way I do most of my reading, I was puzzled about the notion of fact vs. fiction. The last words of the epilogue seem to annul the notion of confession. That is reminiscent, I'm sure to many Jews, of the words of Kol Nidre. We know that the Inquisition happened. We know the holocoust happened. But did this series of events happen or was it all made up? Now looking at the paperback I am sorting things out. The very, very long monolouges don't work well on tape. But my sense they are much better in the book form. It was a very good book, I THINK! And chapter 11 is the greatest mystery of all. I would love to hear from others.
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