“I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography,” complains the male protagonist of Deception, “I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” Now who says this: Philip Roth the character or Philip Roth the author? Or both? Or is it a meaningless question?
In Deception (1990) an American middle-aged, married novelist called Philip Roth is having an adulterous affair with a married Englishwoman. They meet in a room to have sex and talk about their problems, their lives and what drove one to the other. The novel was written by an American middle-aged, then married (now divorced) novelist called Philip Roth. What is the deception the title alludes to? The cheating done by the two adulterers on their spouses? Or the trick the author plays on his readers?
For better and for worse Philip Roth’s fictional oeuvre is stranded in the mire of self-referentiality. It was not always like that; his first three books – Goodbye, Columbus; When she was Good; Letting Go – were no more self-referential than the typical literature that ordinarily borrows some ideas from the author’s life experiences to get a start. But since Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) Roth hasn’t been able to deflect the charges that all his writing is just a thinly-veiled reportage of his personal life, romans à clef. When Roth wrote about this novel disguised as a sexually-messed up Jewish patient’s confession to his psychiatrist, many instead preferred to see it as confession disguised as a novel. Rather than insisting in getting these stubborn critics to get the facts right, Roth started creating a daedal tapestry of references, alter egos, and facts mixed up with fiction in order to confuse rather than clarify the limits of his identity.
The epitome of this game was Nathan Zuckerman, the protagonist of several of his books and considered by critics to be Roth’s alter ego. Ironically Nathan Zuckerman did not first show up in The Ghost Writer (1979), first part of the Zuckerman Bound trilogy, but in My Life as a Man (1974), as the alter ego of another Roth alter ego, Jewish novelist Peter Tarnopol. Tarnopol is a writer trying to escape the trauma of a horrifying marriage to a neurotic and manipulative woman, Maureen, and Zuckerman is a character he creates as part of a book he’s writing to use literature to exorcise her demonic influence upon his life. Another irony is that Tarnopol was also created by Roth as a way of dealing with his first and very daunting marriage.
Then Nathan Zuckerman resurfaces, as a character autonomous unto himself, in The Ghost Writer and the sequels. Zuckerman is a Jewish novelist from Newark who has achieved national notoriety thanks to a scandalous novel called Carnovsky (obviously modelled after Portnoy’s Complaint), a novel that many, including his parents and brother, think is based on his own life. The story of Zuckerman is in fact the story of Zuckerman’s estrangement from his family and his inability to make up with his father and his brother, Henry. The Counterlife (1986) was the coda to Zuckerman’s life that the rather irrelevant The Prague Orgy had failed to be. In this novel Zuckerman deals with the death of his brother and considers his own mortality by imagining his own death. Roth had taken Zuckerman as far as he could take a fictional character and I suppose we could say he had written himself into a literary corner. The logical step was for Roth to muddle the waters even more, and so he wrote himself, or at least wrote a Philip Roth, into a novel.
Roth did indeed live in England for a while, and he was married to an Englishwoman, namely the actress Claire Bloom (they married in 1990, the same year the novel was published). These facts are true. Everything else that happens in the novel is up to the reader to decide if it’s true or not. Although what happens in it does not interest me very much. I admit Deception is not one of my favourite Roth novels. Adultery is a time-honoured theme of literature, and when you’re being compared against Flaubert, Tolstoy and Eça, you better bring something new to the table, and I fear Roth fails at that. What I truly admire in it is Roth’s courage to portray himself in a negative role, a womanizer, a cheater, a slightly neurotic and insensitive man. There’s a passage that illuminates one of Roth’s recurrent preoccupations. “As though it’s purity that’s the heart of a writer’s nature. Heaven help such a writer! As though Joyce hadn’t sniffed filthily at Nora’s underpants. As though in Dostoevsky’s soul, Svidrigailov never whispered. Caprice is at the heart of a writer’s nature. Exploration, fixation, isolation, venom, fetishism, austerity, levity, perplexity, childishness, et cetera. The nose in the seam of the undergarment – that’s the writer’s nature.” I’m not sure it is, not completely, but Roth has a point that writers spend a lot of their time pursuing disreputable interests, being selfish, wallowing in filth, and leading marginal lives. At least this used to be truer in the past when writers were associated with the Bohemian lifestyle.
The novel is composed mainly of dialogue, and this deprives it of many of Roth’s talents as a master stylist who understands the rhythms and cadences of prose. He’s also a great writer of dialogue, exceptional at it considering he’s not a playwright, and his dialogues always flow organically and are impressed with the marks of their speakers’ personalities. But for me Roth is better when he’s modulating between prose and dialogue.
Thematically adultery is new ground for Roth. In the past he explored sexual obsessions, hedonism (in the guise of another alter ego, David Kepesh) unhappy marriages and stormy family relationships. This novel shows two people trying to find happiness in each other. Roth isn’t necessarily unhappy; at least he doesn’t attribute ‘domestic dissatisfaction’ as the reason he fell in love with this woman. As for his partner in adultery, she is a bit unhappy:
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothing. Two nannies, two children, and two cleaning women all squabbling, and the usual English damp. Then my daughter, since she’s been ill, has taken to waking me up at any time, three, four, five. What’s tiring is I’m responsible to all my responsibilities. I need a holiday. And I don’t think we can continue to have a sexual relationship. The day’s too short.”
“Is that right? That’s too bad.”
Sex isn’t even an outlet for them. The mundane world gets too much in their way, takes the pleasure away and leaves only the sense of shame for neglecting their ‘front’ life for the hidden one. The problem is that neither character ever comes fully to life, Roth’s gifts for characterisation didn’t work very well here. Another problem is that too many things happen in this novel. At times it feels like Roth is doing a list of all the things that interest but he doesn’t stop to pick up an idea and explore it. There are scenes about the alleged misogyny of his novels, then nods to his self-referentiality - “Oh, I know a bit about you. From reading your books.” – then his views about the role of the writer, then the toll of fiction on his personal life (the woman becomes jealous of a sketchbook on which he jots down erotic ideas for a novel), and of course the ghost of Zuckerman haunting the novel. At one point Roth is telling the woman that he’s writing a novel about the death of Zuckerman: it would be about Zuckerman’s biographer interviewing several people connected to the dead writer in order to learn about him but always getting a different picture of his life (shades of Citizen Kane?) and slowly coming to hate Zuckerman for making his biographer’s job difficult. (
In the novel Roth also imagines a novel where Zuckerman dies (93) as if officially recognizing he has moved on. Indeed NZ only shows up as a narrator in the trilogy and finally in Exit Ghost, the novel touted as the final NZ novel. The novel is about his biographer trying to create a picture of his subject and meeting many different views (Citizen Kane). This was a touch I liked because it’s Roth acknowledging Zuckerman had to pass away in order for Roth to go on. (Roth gave a proper farewell to Nathan Zuckerman in the aptly-titled Exit Ghost.)
Besides this I fear the novel is only of interest to Philip Roth aficionados who care to follow the development of his work. Deception was a transitional novel that led to two superior novels: Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America. Both use Philip Roth as protagonist too. These two novels are more fascinating because they showcase Roth’s underappreciated gits for bizarre plotting and storytelling and also because they stretch the credibility of the Roth figure. In Operation Shylock Philip Roth chases his doppelganger all over Israel, a mysterious Roth-lookalike preaching that Jews abandon Israel en masse, amidst a geopolitical thriller involving spies, soldiers, terrorists, dictators, plastic penises and the 10 Tenets of Anti-Semites Anonymous. The Plot Against America is an alternative history book: the author imagines what would have happened to young Phil Roth if he had grown up in an America where aviator hero and alleged Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh was President. It’s like Roth was saying, in jest, “I created a fictional alter ego to whom realistic things happened and everyone thought I was writing facts; now I’ve put myself in the story and I challenge you to believe any of this is true.” Compared to the flamboyance of these novels, the realistic domestic drama of Deception will only leave the reader bored.