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Deception by Philip Roth
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Jan 15, 11

bookshelves: novel
Read in January, 2011

"Yes, that's life for you, always slightly askew fiction." (p. 191)

"Postcoital intimacy. That's the subject."
"Is it? I hadn't thought of it precisely that way." (p. 182)


"Maybe they thought somebody who writes a book like this must be a sex maniac. They take any small bit about anybody." (p. 54)

A forgotten classic. It makes sense that, since Philip Roth won every major literary award IN ONE DECADE, people can forget about the gems he was turning out in his sleep the decade before. Deception is hardly read but is the postmodern metafictive novel par excellence.

The title refers to (1) the adulterous affair at the heart of the novel (2) the Czech girl's spy history (3) the metafiction of having a main character named Philip who is an American writer living in London, who writes about a guy named Zuckerman, who is from New Jersey, who is Jewish, and so on...(4) the very nature of pillow talk (which makes up most of the text and yet, remarkably, works!), (5) the self-deception that everyone in the novel uses to survive, and (6) the deception of memory, as on p. 189, the British woman remembers the end of the affair backwards, she thinking she was dumped when she did the dumping. I'm sure there are more deceptions here, but these are a good place to start.

Roth has always expressed unease with the stupid literary parlor game of trying to figure out what parts of a work of fiction are based on an author's personal life, (1) because he rightly values his privacy and (2) because it's just not the way you're supposed to read a work of fiction! If the whole point of reading fiction is to find out what 'really' happened, why not read biography? Roth's most famous retort to the gossip-mill is in this book, "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 isn't."
"I can see why that might be fun for you and your readers...but what about me? What about humiliating me?"
"How could you be humiliated by something that's not so?" (p. 184)

Roth has always taunted the gossipers even as he tells them off. He says on p. 109 that he slept with three of his students while he was a professor (at Iowa?), but again, this is the fictional character Philip and not the real Philip. By the way, the section in which he says that is hilarious--the British adulteress and he play a game of reality shift where she is a feminist 'lawyer' cross examining him on his crimes against feminism. "Why did you portray Mrs. Portnoy as a hysteric? Why did you portray Lucy Nelson as a psychopath? Why did you portray Maureen Tarnopol as a liar and a cheat? Does this not defame and denigrate women? Why do you depict women as shrews, if not to malign them?"
"Why did Shakespeare? You refer to women as though every woman is a person to be extolled."
"You dare to compare yourself with Shakespeare? Next you will be comparing yourself to Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker!"

Another taunt, on p. 193: "Well, at a certain point the writing did take over and alter things."
"Why do you do that? Why do you take life like that? And especially considering that you wanted secrecy--and our relationship was distorted by secrecy, by your almost paranoid efforts to keep the whole thing hidden. For the sake of your wife. Why did you then write a book which she, I'm sure, can't help but think is based on a real person?"
"It's what I do. It wasn't paranoia. It was never paranoia. It was protecting somebody from somethingn she couldn't be expected to be happy about. Besides, she thinks the real person is Rosalie Nichols." [LOL]
"Oh, of course. Of yesteryear." I recall reading that Claire Bloom was incensed with this book and made Roth take her name out of it, which, in turn, incensed him.

Another theme here is of cultural displacement and differences. "Our story isn't a love story...it's a cultural story. That's the one that interests you."
"That one always interests me."
"That explains the Gentile women, does it? You fall in love for the anthropology."
"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 the Albert Schweitzer of cross-cultural fucking."
Laughing. "Well, not so saintly. The Malinowski will do." (44-45)

Philip associates Jews and Jewishness with home, with America. The Polish girl says (170) that she'd always read about Jews but never seen one in public until she went to America and, "at one station the Jews got on the train."
"How did you know that?"
"My husband said, 'Look, those people are Jewish.'"
"They weren't religious Jews."
"No, no, no. Executives. With briefcases."
"Jews with briefcases."
"Yeah. Strange? No."
"No. Stranger today are Jews with sidelocks." (171)

"Something I was longing for. It didn't occur to me, at least not in any blatant way, until I was back a few months."
"What's that?"
"Jews."
"We've got some in England, you know."
"Jews with force, I'm talking about. Jews with appetite, without shame. Complaining Jews who get under your skin. Brash Jews who eat with their elbows on the table. Unaccomodating Jews, full of anger, insult, argument, and impudence. New York's the real obstreperous Zion, whether Ariel Sharon knows it or not."
"So England was too Christian for you."
"Tel Aviv's too Christian compared to this place. After London even Ed Koch looks good."
"Who's he?"
"The Jewish mayor my liberal friends hate. Not me. I watch him waving his arms on television. I hear that singsong, self-satisfied ethnic squak, and I lean forward to kiss the set. The other day I was driving to Jersey to see my father, and coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel, the guy in the next car called me an asshole. he rolls down the window and he says, 'You fuckin' asshole, you!' I didn't even know what I'd done wrong. I just smiled. I told him, 'Force the issue, man. Pour it on.' All that truculence. All that wholehearted, unapologetic pugnacity--absolutely rejuvenating. When I see everybody everywhere pushing to be first, I begin to remember what it means to be human." (p.198-9)

We have a Czech girl fleeing communism; an American writer imitating his hero Henry James by moving to England, and who happens to detest England and grows paranoid about latent anti-Semitism. Everyone in the book feels out of place. Philip, like Marcus Messner, is worried that everyone is secretly hating him for being Jewish (Marcus suspects that the customers at the inn say "Jew" under their breaths). All of Philip's books on his shelf are about being Jewish (but NOT Judaism, mind you) and the suffering of the Jewish people. Philip's nephew gets engaged to a Puerto Rican and causes a family scandal that is so bad that Philip goes back to New Jersey just to quiet it down. "The worst thing that can happen in America? Your grandson marries a Puerto Rican. You live in Poland...or you live in Israel...or you live in America and you take the consequences of being a Jew. Tell me which you would prefer.' 'Okay, I'll shut up!' I was delighted. I had him outfoxed...'Now you know what I'm going to do? I'm going out to Brooklyn to talk to the mother. I'm sure she's down crying on her knees too, giving her rosary beads a real workout. I'm going to tell her the same thing I told you. 'You want to live in Puerto Rico...[or] you want to live in Brooklyn, the worst that happens is that your daughter marries a Jew...Take your choice.' Well, this starts my father right up again. 'What kind of comparison is that? What do you mean 'the worst that can happen?' The woman ought to be tickled to death who her daughter's marrying.' 'Sure,' I said. 'She is--tickled to death just about as much as you are.'...The marriage took place in St. Patrick's Cathedral. With a rabbi in attendance. Just to be sure they didn't try to slip us a fast one." (p. 76-7)

"In England, whenever I'm in a public place...and someone happens to mention the word 'Jew,' I notice that the voice always drops a little. The way most people say 'shit' in public, you all say 'Jew.' Jews included."

Also, the argument about Israel and America from p. 78-82 is amazing. I'm basically going to quote it next time I have to hear someone goes off on America and Israel's relationship, which is every ****ing day.

As for the rather ambiguous famous scene where the crazy man in the street says to Philip and his Israeli friends "you don't even dress right!" [Which Martin Amis later corrected, saying, 'A British man would never say that. He would say, 'you don't even look proper.'] I don't know what to make of it. Is Philip just paranoid and the man is just insane rather than antiSemitic?

And is the cigarillo commercial with Fagin real? Wow.

What cultural displacement has to do with the concept of deception I do not know. Perhaps Roth is poking a little fun here? Perhaps this fictional character 'Philip' is feeling a little righteous because of what other people do wrong? Perhaps he is enjoying a victimization which he, as a wealthy man in the highest of social circles, does not really experience? Is he self-deceived?

As you can see from the quotes above, this book is made up entirely of dialogue, without any narration (a commendable literary feat in itself--I had the idea of doing it and then found out that this book existed. So much for that.) And it's the best dialogue Roth has ever written. He's not very good at dialogue--in most of his books, the characters sound like the narrator--but here he shows that he can write unbelievable dialogue when he cares to, which is once every fifty years. It is life-like, it is frank (I've never heard such honest talk about abortion in my life--she refers to it straight out as her trying to "bump off the child," and "murder a child," and "kill a child," and "babies could easily be disposed of by shoving surgical swabs down their throats until they choke. So I said there must be a kinder way to murder babies." (p. 36-7) ) She ends up having a child in the end, and by her husband somehow, so that loose end gets tied up.

Another repeated theme is prostitution. Philip urges his mistress to "be a whore for your husband" and fake an orgasm to make him feel good about himself and keep him happy, but she says she can't do it. The Czech girl, when she first came to America, accidentally found herself (perhaps through some bad English) in a prostitution ring.

There's plenty of intertextuality here too. Is the story on p. 91 the Counterlife? I haven't read that yet so I don't know. Definitely the Prague Orgy is a big part here, as Philip recounts his being harassed and then not allowed back into Czechoslovakia. Even Roth can't blame me for wanting to know if that part is true.

"There are two nightmares for a biographer." (p. 91-2) "One is that everybody gives you the same story, and the other is that everybody gives you a different story. If everybody gives you the same story, then the subject has made himself into a myth, he's rigidified himself..." And that's exactly what Roth has done, that's exactly why the stereotyping about him as, in his words, "a deranged penis" continues.

The two lovers play a postcoital literary game they call "reality shift," essentially an improvisational acting game.
"You're the biographer. You're stuck."
"Who are you?"
"I am myself."
"How--?"
"Don't ask me how. I'll worry about how."
"Is this really the book you want to be writing? Because it doesn't seem to me like a very good idea to have, in the same narrative, you AND Zuckerman--" (p. 95)

"As though it's purity at 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...Impurity."...
"I have no scruples but I do love you terribly."
"You only do if I play reality shift."
"You were wonderful. You should be the writer, you know."
"Nope. Never. Couldn't. Not a bad enough fellow. Insufficiently aggressive. Insufficiently ruthless. Insufficiently capricious, venomous, childish, et cetera. My scruples."
"Maybe you're not as nice as you look either."
"I'm afraid I am. It's grotesque. I'm English. I'm even nicer." (p.97-99)

"I remember those A students all reading Kafka's Letter to His Father and explaining exactly how 'Metamorphosis' and 'the Trial' derived from his relationship to his father. 'No,' you said wearily, 'it's just the other way around. His idea of his relationship to his father derives from 'Metamorphosis' and 'the Trial.' Set them up with that and then delivered your haymaker. 'By the time a novelist worth his salt is thirty-six, he's no longer translating experience into fable--he's imposing his fable onto experience.'" (119)

"One of the unfair things about adultery, when you compare the lover to the spouse, the lover is never seen in those awful dreary circumstances, arguing about the vegetables, or burning toast, or forgetting to ring up for something, or putting upon someone or being put upon. All that stuff, I think, people keep deliberately out of affairs..."
"Yes, with the lover everyday life recedes. Emma Bovary disease. In the woman's first flush of passion, every lover is Rodolphe...'A kind of permanent seduction,' Flaubert calls it.' You should read a little aloud to your daughter each night at bedtime. Flaubert's a good girls' guide to men. I used to tell my students that you don't need three men to go through what she does. One will usually fill the bill, as Rodolphe, then Leon, then Charles Bovary. First the rapture and passion...then with time, the fantastical lover erodes into the workaday lover, becomes Leon, a rube after all. The tyranny of the actual begins...Then, he is transformed into Bovary. He puts on weight. He cleans his teeth with his tongue. He makes gulping sounds when he's swallowing his soup. He's clumsy, he's ignorant, he's coarse, even his back is irritating to look at...The prince who saved you from your boring existence is now the slob at the core of your boring existence. And then the catastrophe." (130-2)

Anyway, the real achievement of the novel is (1) the great dialogue and writing a novel without any narrative sentences at all and (2) the metafictive headgames rivaled only by Operation Shylock: first, it sounds like nonfiction, then (p.174) the wife finds the manuscript (of the first 170 pages), then Philip says it's all fiction; then, he calls up the mistress and tells her about the notebook being found; THEN, he publishes a separate novel about her and contemplates another (this one); whilst she considers writing a novel about him, called Kiss and Tell (200-1). Whew.

So for those of you keeping score, (1) it's real (2) it's fake (3) it's real (4) it's fake. The last section contradicts the penultimate section, which contradicts all previous sections. And the delicious last line is "no one would believe it" (it being the real story).

The climax of the novel is p. 174-86, where he explains to his poor wife the difference between fiction and autobiography. This is what it's all really about, and is worth the book price as a philosophical dialogue about the nature of fiction. The concluding section is also an awesome gloss of that section.

As for flaws, Roth does his usual deus ex machina thing when he feels himself running out of gas. The nameless British woman gets cancer, while the check he gives her doesn't get found even though he goes out of his way to foreshadow it (by repeatedly emphasizing how important it is that her husband not find the check).

If I were teaching a class on postmodernism, I would assign this.
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