Having begun his career with the ambition to write large, symphonic works of fiction, Philip Roth spent the ’80s composing suites for unaccompanied ego. Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Counterlife made austerely comic fugues out of self-absorption. In his new novel, at least, Roth’s alter ego often plays second fiddle. Deception is a series of duets — spare but beguiling chamber music. The chamber in question is not a bedroom but a writer’s studio that doubles as one, with a plastic mat intended for the writer’s back exercises but which serves for the regular exercise of a different part of his anatomy.
The writer (Nathan Zuckerman having by now become too transparent a disguise) is called Philip. To further throw off prying, conjecturing readers, he is a Jewish-American novelist in his early 50s, born in New Jersey, living with his English wife in Connecticut and London — and sharing his London afternoons and exercise mat with an unnamed, unhappily married Englishwoman in her mid-30s. The book consists mostly of unadorned, unattributed, but unconfusing conversations between Philip and his partner in adultery, of the sort that take place between lovers before, after, and during sex (”That’s one of the nicest things that’s been done to me all week”/”I liked it too”). When not exchanging sweet or obscene nothings, the lovers — pronouncing themselves middle-aged and not liking it one bit — exchange complaints. Hers: not in the mood for sex; clod of a husband with girlfriend; dull job, dumb boss; lump on cervix; general confusion; monstrous ailing mother. His: British anti-Semitism (taking this matter up where The Counterlife left off); writers who want to be pure instead of prurient; feminists who condemn his books because (like this one) they make women seem vile or wretched; fashionable left-wing opinion at London dinner parties (very scathing on this). Not a false note in all these conversations, and the same goes for the others that periodically interrupt them: between Philip and assorted ex-lovers, between Philip and assorted, superbly rendered, long-suffering Czechs. The voices deftly embody the speakers — we see as well as hear the English girlfriend, with one foot in the ’60s and the other in the proper thing for a well-bred Englishwoman to do.
But unfortunately, a couple of dialogues added at the end shove the book’s outstanding flaw down the reader’s throat. One is between Philip and his wife, who has discovered a notebook containing the conversations we have so far been reading and throws a jealous fit. No wonder he’s been neglecting her! But (says he) the girlfriend is just a figment of his ever-erect imagination! Figment my foot (says she) — he couldn’t have made up all that English stuff on his own. He threatens to publish the notebook and be damned, if necessary, by leering readers. She’s humiliated, etc. Then there’s an argument between Philip and the girlfriend over his portrayal of her in the book (and in The Counterlife, where she appears as Maria). Is it a good likeness? Has he betrayed her by giving her away to her English friends? — etc., etc.
Apart from the fact that this sort of metafictional exercise is now virtually mandatory in contemporary fiction and thus about as interesting to watch as any other form of group calisthenics, it is too laborious a tease. This novel, like the preceding several, relies for much of its drawing power on public curiosity about the private life of Roth, coyly wrapped in his by now customary semi-transparent, semi-fictional drapery. At the same time — here as elsewhere — he declares himself for privacy and brushes aside speculation about his private affairs as an impertinence. After the other voices have nearly walked away with the book, Roth, in his concluding metafictional postscript, forces the reader’s attention back to himself while pretending to fend it off. It’s as if you, the silent, ruminative reader, have been invited to pull your chair closer to the couch and take notes while the recumbent author recites his indiscretions, anxieties, daydreams, carefully nursed resentments — only to be told, as the session draws to a close, that all of this is, of course, none of your goddamn business. B-