Picks and Pans Review: Deception

updated 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Philip Roth

Anyone who has read any of Philip Roth's work won't be surprised by the subjects covered in Deception: sex, Jewishness, sex, the role of the writer, and sex. After a dozen books, the question is not what will Roth write about but how will he write it.

Having covered the terrain rather straightforwardly in Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, Letting Go and The Professor of Desire, Roth, in his later years, has turned to devices. In 1987's The Counterlife, it was using the voice of a man who, readers discover, may or may not be dead.

Deception uses another gimmick. All in dialogue, the novel traces a love affair between a married American Jewish writer living in London and a married English woman who was once his student. In the hands of someone less skilled, the form could become unbearable, but Roth—whose strength has always been his perfect ear—usually manages to make the quicker bits of dialogue revealing and funny. ("I've just seen my daughter performing in her Nativity play. The Nativity is something we have about the birth of Jesus."..."When did that happen? I probably was paying no attention. I missed the newspaper several days last week.")

The conceit works less well, however, in some of the longer, more expository passages, where it often becomes difficult to determine which partner is saying what. Add to that confusion the fact that the characters play a lovers' game they call "reality shift," in which they ask and answer questions from a point of view other than their own.

There are also other voices in Deception—-the protagonist's wife, a racist friend, a Czech girl much used by men—all of whom allow Roth to expound on his ideas about women, England (where the author maintains a home), religion and literature, among other subjects.

It does seem, however, that Roth, like the character who may or may not be based on him, is at least as in love with language as he is with any lover. ("You love your typewriter more than any woman," accuses the wife who may or may not have been betrayed.)

There is a deception here, all right, and it's far more—and far more intriguing—than just the simple, adulterous kind. (Simon and Schuster, $18.95)

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