Zuckerman Bound by Philip Roth (Shane's books 27-30, 2010)

Four novels - The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy - make up Zuckerman Bound, in which we are introduced to Nathan Zuckerman, the novelist whose life teasingly parellels much of Roth's own. [amtap book:isbn=1598530119]

Five more Zuckerman novels have followed but this trilogy and its epilogue, The Prague Orgy, take us from the beginnings of his literary career to his enormous success and stardom and the toll that takes on his body and mind.In The Ghost Writer a young Nathan Zuckerman visits his idol, the novelist E I Lonoff. Zuckerman has written just a few short stories and one in particular, based on a family scandal, has angered his father, who believes that the story reflects badly not just on the family but on American Jews. Partly, Zuckerman is seeking enlightenment from Lonoff regarding an author's responsibilities to the world.

Lonoff, it turns out, is unhappily married and having an affair with Amy Bellette, one of his former students. Zuckerman eavesdrops on Lonoff and Amy and sits uncomfortably through some of Lonoff's rows with his wife. In one memorable section, Zuckerman imagines that Amy is in fact Ann Frank and that she in fact survived the Holocaust. Roth draws a clear parallel between Zuckerman's re-writing of the Ann Frank story and the story that angered his family - in both cases Zuckerman is treating Jewish history with irreverence.

Zuckerman has gone further in Zuckerman Bound, finding fame - and notoriety - for Carnovsky, a sexually explicit comedy about a young Jewish man coming of age. It comically mirrors what happened to Roth after the publication of Portnoy's Complaint in 1969 but it's an unexpected turn of events given the way Zuckerman's fiction was described in The Ghost Writer.

Struggling with paranoia over his new-found fame as well as the challenge of making the public realise Carnovsky was fiction and not autobiography, Zuckerman also has to deal with further family tensions. The book has left his parents devastated. Meanwhile, Zuckerman is being trailed around New York by Alvin Pepler, a former game show champion who insists that Zuckerman stole his life story.

Throughout, Roth is daring us to assume that Zuckerman is him and that Carnovsky is Portnoy's Complaint. And who wouldn't be tempted, when the parallels are so direct, to assume that this is Roth apologising for PC, or perhaps shaming the public for their response to it? But the book constantly reminds us that fiction should not be read literally. Roth's central objective here is to explain the difference between authors and their works and, just as he did with The Ghost Writer, to set out the contrast, often stark, between an author and the perception of the author.

With that in mind, it would be perverse to assume that this is a confessional from Roth. Doubtless Roth is getting some things of his chest here amid the fiction but it's impossible to know which is which and that's part of the game Roth is playing.

In The Anatomy Lesson Zuckerman is in a worse condition. As middle age looms, he is left unable to write by a neck pain that no doctor seems able to heal. Adrift in self pity, Zuckerman can't console himself even with the attentions of the various women with whom he is having relationships.

Having become so consumed by his condition that he is now little more than a pain in the neck, Zuckerman decides to go to Chicago to train as a doctor. There, addled by drink and drugs, he convinces his chauffeur that he is a porn baron before ending up hospitalised following an accident in a cemetery.

The Anatomy Lesson is probably the funniest book in the trilogy despite, or perhaps because of, Zuckerman's gradual self-destruction. It's followed by The Prague Orgy, in which Zuckerman travels to Prague - just as Roth did in 1971 - and finds himself in a city that is at once repressed and debauched.

Zuckerman is there to recover the manuscripts of a writer who, he has been told, was the master of the Yiddish short story. Once again we are given the chance to consider Zuckerman's place in the tradition of Jewish writing.

The Prague Orgy deserves its official status as an epilogue to the first Zuckerman trilogy. It's shorter and shallower than the three preceding novels but it still makes some interesting points and is, as with the rest of the series, frequently funny.

A couple of years ago I asked James whether there was any good fiction about being a writer. It's a pet hate of mine, writers who feel that we must all understand how hard their work is. There are so many more interesting themes they could be tackling.

As James noted in his review of The Ghost Writer, he recommended these books. I'm glad he did. Roth's writing is wonderful and Zuckerman is an engaging character, never entirely likeable but not without redeeming qualities either. These novels are well worth reading.