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Deception a clever book, but only minor in importance


Written by Philip Roth.

Simon and Schuster.

208 pages, $18.95.


DECEPTION, the title of Philip Roth's newest novel, is also a description of the framework of the novel. The conversations in the novel deal with deception in various forms and the novel itself is a sort of deception. In fashioning this framework, Roth treats a favorite theme.

The work that made Roth famous, Portnoy's Complaint, also changed the nature of Roth's writing. For Complaint and his prior works, Roth, like most authors, drew from personal experience for fictional inspiration. But with the publication of that best-seller, with its highly personalized descriptions of a strongly sexual Jewish male, there was widespread speculation that Roth based the character of Portnoy on himself.

The Jewish community was outraged at the unflattering portrait of Jewish family life that Roth painted. These experiences caused Roth to become strongly concerned with the relationship between author, character, and reader. While denying that he writes autobiographical fiction, he has created characters like Nathan Zuckerman, an alter-ego who, in Zuckerman Unbound, writes a blockbuster hit novel that sounds much like Portnoy's Complaint. Zuckerman is pilloried by the Jewish community, and his sexual habits are questioned. Roth has played with this authorial mythmaking in other works, but never so much as in his latest novel.

Deception consists almost solely of conversations which occur between a writer named Philip, who has written of a character named Zuckerman, and various women. One of these women is Philip's mistress. She visits him illicitly in a small flat in London. She is married and often speaks to Philip of the difficulties with her husband, who is also having an affair. The affair with Philip seems to start at the beginning of the novel and continues to its end.

The conversations are intelligent and interesting: They deal with sex, politics, Jews, and people. Roth has the talent of making sexual descriptions seem explicit without going into details. The lovers talk before, during, and after sex. The remainder of the conversations are with women from Philip's past and one is with a man who accuses Philip of cheating with <>

his wife. The theme of deception runs throughout these conversations. Wives deceive their husbands, lovers deceive one another, and they all deceive themselves. The deceptions of everyday life abound: Marriages are happy, anti-Semitism does not exist in civilized society, love is forever.

Towards the end of the book, Philip has a conversation with his wife, who so far has not appeared. The wife has found the notebook in which he has recorded these conversations. She tearfully confronts him with this evidence of his infidelity. He protests his innocence and says that these conversations, and the mistress who appears in them, are fictions, mental exercises to occupy a novelist's idle time.

Even after she is convinced, she resents his creation of the perfect woman for himself -- a woman who, though nonexistent, is competition by the fact that she is Philip's ideal woman. The deception is revealed not as Philip deceiving his wife but as Roth deceiving the reader. However, in a kind of postscript, Philip has one final conversation with the fictitious mistress, years after the affair, in which the implication is made that a character in one of Philip's books is based on this woman. A fiction based on a fiction. Roth has basically set us up. He takes advantage of the tendency to associate his characters with himself and uses it as a plot device.

Roth writes well, his conversations entertain and intrigue the casual reader. The clever framework is diverting but in a novel sort of way; it's an exercise in writing. If Roth's writing survives the critique of time, this book will be considered an engaging but minor work.