In Philip Roth’s last novel, The Counterlife, Nathan Zuckerman’s brother died, was buried in New Jersey, and then started another life in Israel. Things more unorthodox still happen in Deception: time and reality are more finely splintered, knocked sideways, abolished, and arrogantly reassembled. The novel is about a love affair. The lovers are aware that their story is an early model for The Counterlife, in which Zuckerman was married to an Englishwoman called Maria. In the fictional time scale, Deception therefore ought to precede The Counterlife. So it is startling to learn, at the very outset of Deception, that Zuckerman is dead. Of course one realizes that death, with Roth, is not necessarily a permanent condition. Still, in this new novel, Zuckerman is and stays dead. A young writer is working on his biography, and the middle-aged lover in Deception, whose first name is Philip, is writing a novel about the young writer writing a biography of Zuckerman.
Philip has all the usual Roth concerns and obsessions: Jewishness, anti-Semitism (especially British anti-Semitism), East Europeans in the West, the process of turning reality into fiction, and sleeping with Gentile women. He is living in London, and the unnamed married Englishwoman he sleeps with is the raw material, the notes for the Maria he was married to in The Counterlife. She (the mistress in Deception) can remember dining with Philip in a London restaurant when he was insulted by a woman at the next table making anti-Semitic remarks. That was a key scene in The Counterlife, but the two diners there were Zuckerman and his wife, Maria. Husband and lover…wife and mistress are possible variations within the same episode. Deception, like The Counterlife, is a novel about novel writing.
The backbone of Deception consists of pre- and post-coital dialogues between Philip and his mistress when she visits him in his one-room studio in Notting Hill Gate. Apart from an occasional stage direction like “laughing,” “crying,” it’s all talk. The talk has a lot of charm, erudition, and wit. It’s beguiling, and it needs to be, because in some ways this novel is an act of aggression against the reader, who might go away in a huff: it also needs to be beguiling because the erotic charge in the love affair is words. Philip loves his mistress—as Zuckerman loves Maria—for the way she talks: “I’m an écouteur—an audiophiliac. I’m a talk fetishist.” Philip’s dialogues with his mistress are intercut with others he has with his wife, with an ex-mistress who has cancer, with another ex-mistress (and ex-student) who has had shock treatment, with several Czechs, and a Pole. Each voice is a cunning and captivating piece of mimicry. Only one of them belongs to a man; and the Polish woman, with her fetching broken English, is another subject for audiophilia; “I’m kissing your English,” says Philip. Two of the Czechs and the Pole have no obvious bearing on the main story. Their sad tales of exile, of dépaysement in the West, read like bits of reportage—snippets of classy aural photorealism thrown in.
There is no plot to speak of. The central love affair is more companionable than passionate. (Passion is reserved for permanent obsessions like anti-Semitism and writing.) It peters out quietly. The mistress decides to return to her husband, and Philip returns to New York, where in due course he publishes a novel: not the one about Zuckerman’s biographer, but another, based on his affair in Notting Hill Gate—presumably The Counterlife. Two years after the breakup of the affair he calls his mistress and they have a reconciliatory transatlantic telephone conversation. She objected to finding her private life exposed in his novel. But she forgives him “because it was so, so tender…I think. Unless I got it wrong.”
“No. I thought there were some things you’d like. Things I planted just for you to be amused by.”
The telephone conversation is itself scheduled to go into Philip’s next novel, and the mistress threatens—though she probably doesn’t mean it—to write a kiss-and-tell novel of her own. There is no end to the processing of life into fiction, but the point Philip makes over and over again is that the moment life hits the page it turns into fiction. There is no life between book covers. And yet it all seems so real.
This is what Philip’s wife cannot understand. Whereas his mistress objects to the betrayal of her privacy, his wife objects to her betrayal tout court. She finds and reads Philip’s notes about the goings-on in Notting Hill Gate, and makes a jealous scene. Philip gets angry:
“We are talking about a notebook, a blueprint, a diagram, and not about human beings!”
“But you are a human being, whether you like it or not! And so am I! And so is she!”
“She’s not, she’s words—and try as I will, I cannot fuck words!”
Philip gets just as irritated with his readers and critics: “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, 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.” There’s a Donald Duck side to Philip: he’s always complaining, shouting, indignant.
It fits in with his conception of what constitutes proper Jewishness. In Deception there are replays of complaints from The Counterlife about British anti-Semitism. But Philip also has it in for British Jews for being quiet and well-behaved. He feels dépaysé in London. (If there is meant to be an analogy between his condition and that of the East European exiles, then it doesn’t work; their exile is—or would have been at the time the novel was written—on a different scale of irreversible tragedy from Philip’s.) He misses New York, where there are
Jews with force…Jews with appetite. Jews without shame. Complaining Jews who get under your skin. Brash Jews who eat with their elbows on the table. Unaccommodating Jews, full of anger, insult, argument, and impudence.
Still, he loves his mistress—as Zuckerman loved Maria—because she is gentle, diffident, well-bred (and also well-read and funny). He loves her for her Englishness. “You fall in love for the anthropology,” she says. And he replies:
“Could be worse. There are other ways of addressing anthropological differences, you know. There’s the old standby hatred. There’s xenophobia, violence, murder, there’s genocide—“
“So, you’re kind of the Albert Schweitzer of cross-cultural fucking.”
Laughing. “Well, not so saintly. The Malinowski will do.”
How brilliant Philip’s mistress is at diverting his attacks of Jewish paranoia with affectionate humor. Of course, she’s not always so successful as here. And sometimes she complains: “Entirely too many books about Jews,” she says, looking at his shelves; “by Jews, for Jews.” The reader, of course, can’t complain, and there wouldn’t be any point: Roth, in the person of the mistress, has got there before him. However you react, he has always got there before you: a Sugar Ray Robinson with lightning footwork, his fist is always before your nose, whichever way you duck and weave. The reader can’t win. This is a reader-proof novel.
Roth is an aggressive writer. More aggressive than the Dadaists, or Henry Miller, or the Angry Young Men in Britain in the Fifties, or the Beat generation: he goes for the audience in the spirit of Peter Handke, who called one of his plays Offending the Audience. Roth challenges the reader to walk out, then woos him back again with cleverness and charm, and even an occasional touch of cuteness. Still, Maria walks out, and so does the mistress in Deception.
They get tired of being novelized. When Philip explains his relationship with them to his wife, he says it’s as though “Tolstoy had imagined himself in love with Anna Karenina, had Hardy imagined himself in an affair with Tess….” But the trouble with Philip’s mistress is that she’s not Anna or Tess. It’s not that she hasn’t got allure: it’s not that she’s not lovable; it’s not even that she has no existence outside her affair with Philip: she talks a lot about her unsatisfactory, too-English husband, her child, her work, her solicitor, her analyst, the group therapy she despises. She’s got a life, all right; what she lacks is a destiny. All she is is a novel-writing exercise, and she gets fed up with that. And so might we.