What Philip Knew

Philip Roth
Philip Roth; drawing by David Levine


In 1993, over the name “Philip Roth,” there appeared a book entitled Operation Shylock: A Confession, which besides being a dazzling raid into territory that had seemed to be staked out by John Barth and the metafictionists, was also about Israel and its relations with the Jewish Diaspora.

The book presents itself as the work of an American writer named Philip Roth (within the book, however, there are two such Philip Roths) who admits to a history of assisting the Israeli intelligence services. We may choose to take this confession at face value. On the other hand, the confession may be part of a larger fiction: Operation Shylock—A Confession: A Novel. Which would be the truer reading? A “Note to the Reader” seems to promise an answer. The note begins, “This book is a work of fiction,” and ends, “This confession is false.” We are in the sphere of the Cretan Liar.

If Roth did and did not mean Operation Shylock to be read as a lie, an invention, is his new book—which contains a similar note, commencing with the words “The Plot Against America is a work of fiction”—to be read in the same way, namely with its truth status held in suspension? In a sense, no, obviously not. The Plot Against America cannot be true since many of the events it describes are universally known never to have occurred. For instance, there was no President Charles Lindbergh in the White House in the years 1941–1942, carrying out secret orders from Berlin.

Just as obviously, however, Roth has not concocted this lengthy fantasy of an America in thrall to the Nazis simply as a literary exercise. So what is the relation of his story to the real world? What is his book “about”?

Roth’s President Lindbergh favors an oratorical style based on the clipped declarative sentence. His administration runs sinister programs with reassuring titles like “Just Folks” and “Homestead 42” (compare “Homeland Security,” “Patriot Act”). Behind him lurks an ideologue of a vice-president impatient to get his hands on the levers of power. The similarities between the Lindbergh presidency and the presidency of George W. Bush are hard to brush over. Is Roth’s novel of America under fascist rule then “about” America under Bush?

Roth has taken steps to head off such a reading. “Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman à clef to the present moment in America,” he writes in The New York Times Book Review. “That would be a mistake…. I am not pretending to be interested in [the years 1940–1942]—I am interested in those two years.”

It sounds unambiguous, and it is. Nevertheless, a novelist as seasoned as Roth knows that the stories we write sometimes begin to write themselves, after which their truth or falsehood is out of our hands and declarations of authorial intent carry no weight. Furthermore, once…

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