Operation Shiksa: A Philip Roth Mystery He Didn’t Write

Being bicoastal had always sounded really cool to me-the best of both worlds, the sanest way to endure the shallowness of L.A. and the hardship of New York. Then I actually began having to live it, and immediately found myself losing things-not just sleep, but house keys, mail, my wallet and the necessary calm attention-span to read a novel from cover to cover. (Forget about writing one.)

I thought I’d learned how to beat jet lag a dozen years ago from bicoastal movie producer Scott Rudin, who, between being interviewed and making contradictory bargaining phone calls (“We have to pay him that, he’s Vincent D’Onofrio!” … “Who the fuck is Vincent D’Onofrio?”) touted his method: take the 4 p.m. out of L.A., arrive in New York at midnight and go right to sleep.

Of course, such rigor is a lot easier when you’re self-employed and flying first-class. In the past year, working in Burbank at entry-level TV money with two kids back in Manhattan and mounting debt, I frequently flew in JetBlue steerage and, to avoid missing even more work, took enough red-eyes to make me a Visine poster boy.

But the worst thing I lost in the red-eye commute-and in working in showbiz, where you have to read the trades, scripts, memos, spend hours online researching, and watch a lot of TV and movies-was my ability to read novels to completion. This was particularly frustrating, as I’d recently bounced back from years of new-parent illiteracy, the phase when all you’re reading is The Runaway Bunny or What to Expect When You’re Singing Baby Beluga on Two Hours’ Sleep and you fake your way through dinner-party conversations about what you believe are obscure current events which you later learn have been on the front page of The Times for weeks.

When the TV season ended, there was supposed to be a month off, and I was looking forward to 30 straight days without getting on an airplane. Two days into it, my job unexpectedly ended, and I had to fly back several times to job-hunt; for a variety of reasons, I’m not leaving L.A. just yet, but I have at least been able to schedule a more humane bicoastal passage.

And freed from having to catch up on sleep or homework, instead of feeling compelled to check in on what “everyone” was reading (like The Lovely Bones and The Corrections ) or what I had never read in college (Faulkner), I returned to Philip Roth, whom I hadn’t read past Portnoy’s Complaint . Dauntingly, each one was better than the last- The Counterlife , The Human Stain , Sabbath’s Theater (or, as a friend called it, Men Behaving Badly ). These were keepers, books I would want to return to for inspiration. I started buying used Roth hardcovers via the Internet, which were as cheap as new paperbacks. On a recent JetBlue jaunt, I settled into my seat, turned off the DirecTV screen taunting me a foot away from my face (how many times can you really watch True Lies on A&E?) and got cracking on Operation Shylock: A Confession .

I was thoroughly enjoying myself until I hit page 55, when I was jarred by a penciled note in the margin. I leafed ahead and discovered to my horror that a previous owner had underlined, annotated, asterisked, circled and exclamation-pointed with abandon. Not every page, but enough to be incredibly distracting.

My first response was annoyance at the bookseller, who hadn’t noted (nor, likely, even noticed) this literary graffiti. I took out a pencil and began erasing furiously. But as I started reading only for notes, the reporter in me started to get curious. Who was this person?

The careful handwriting looked feminine; the fact that every Yiddish word had been underlined with a question mark in the margin led me to believe she was not Jewish. (She didn’t get Roth’s admittedly cringeworthy pun, “There’s no business like Shoah business.”)

She stopped to marvel several times that she was reading the book in August 1993, the very week when the decision was handed down in the trial Roth had used throughout Shylock , that of Ivan Demjanjuk, the U.S. citizen accused of being the Nazi concentration-camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible.

I too might have marveled at such a coincidence, but would I have taken the time to scribble such musings to myself in the margins? This was more than just a college student dog-earing passages for a possible pop quiz. What motivated her to stop reading and pick up her pencil? Who did she think would be reading this?

This question lingered as I paged through her notes. Though she had highlighted many compelling passages, her notes often expressed frustration with Roth’s style: “PROLIX,” cried one, “de trop” another. And, most memorably: “Please, Mr. Roth-one sentence!”

How weird: to be so pissed at a book’s wordiness as to lodge a written complaint, yet so formal as to address the author as “Mr.” Did she think some day Roth himself might come across her copy?

It was a bizarre twist on an idea Roth loves to play with-the novelist as a character, the implication of the reader in the story. This random stranger had become inextricably enmeshed in my experience of the book. Though I removed several of her question marks and quibbles, I soon set aside my eraser; some of her highlightings were indeed passages I would like to return to.

But wait. Before I returned to Roth’s words, something else struck me. After she’d devoted so much time to annotating her copy, marveling at her personal relationship with it, how had it ended up in my hands? Had she gotten to the end and flung it across the room? Deaccessioned it when she moved? Had she married an anti-Semite who demanded she dump all her Roth books? Or just become a devotee of Updike? Had she broken up with someone who had tried to turn her on to Roth (in vain?), or gotten so broke she needed to sell it? Or had she died, and her grieving husband/partner/sister/parents couldn’t bear to keep the copy around with all these reminders of her (studiousness/obtuseness/penmanship/etc.)?

Reading Operation Shylock had became a wholly schizoid experience: finding out what happened to Roth the character/author (and his dopplegänger, another Philip Roth who was running around pretending to be him and stirring up Zionists), while also trying to learn what had happened to the previous owner. Did she like how it ended? Did the accumulated Yiddish prove too alienating?

Halfway through the book, my plane landed in Long Beach. I got my bags, picked up a rental car and got home, only to find that somewhere along the way I had lost the book. I called JetBlue and the car rental desk, to no avail.

I was devastated. At first I couldn’t bear to read any Roth, so I read something else ( Three Junes , highly recommended). Finally I ordered another copy. I’m sure I’ll finish it, but I will never know how the “other” story ended-the one of this woman’s relationship to the book, to Roth, to Jewish colloquialisms. And where is she now, a decade later?

I realize now that whenever I say I’m reading a book that’s so good I don’t want it to end, that isn’t really true. You want closure-even if it isn’t the ending you hoped for when you started.