The Counterlife and Deception by Philip Roth (Shane's books 22 and 23, 2011)

Last year, I read four Philip Roth novels - the first of his Zuckerman series, anthologised by The Library of America as Zuckerman Bound. This year I read the next Library of America volume, which collects the four books Roth wrote between 1986 and 1991. [amtap book:isbn=1598530305]

Two are works of fiction that Roth dares us to view as autobiographical and two are non-fiction but Roth teases us with the possibility that he is not telling the truth. I'm going to look at the first two in this post.

The Counterlife continues the story of Nathan Zuckerman but the novel is nothing like the previous entries in the series. This would fit comfortably with the short series of post-modern novels that I read earlier this year.

Split into four sections, the book continually contradicts itself, with each section altering a significant fact from the section before. In the opening section, for example, Zuckerman's brother Henry has died during a heart operation. In a later section, it is Nathan who dies in the operation, while Henry picks up the narrative. Later still, Nathan is alive again.

Roth doesn't just fracture his narrative, he plays with the form too. The story is told partly through letters, reminiscences and sections of Zuckerman's manuscripts.

The work, both in structure and in content, examines the process of writing. Roth deals looks at how writers use their own lives and those of their friends and family to create their fiction and also at how the drafting process alters and hones the fiction.

But this is more than fiction about fiction. The Counterlife is also about our own counterlives - those parts that don't fit our image of ourselves or the image other have of us. The novel is filled with instances of people acting out of character or in ways that would surprise those close to them.

Roth also deals with his familiar themes: family, relationships, Jewishness, anti-Semitism and fidelity, whether to a family, a lover or a cause. It's a fantastic book.

Deception deals with some of the same themes, particularly anti-Semitism and fidelity, but Roth goes even further in his exploration of the line between fiction and reality. This book could be a section of The Counterlife: it's told almost entirely in dialogue and features an American novelist who lives in England with an English woman and is having an affair with a married woman.

However, the novelist is not Zuckerman but "Philip Roth". How much of this is autobiographical and how much is part of Roth's deception, played on the reader? Later in the book, "Roth's" partner finds his notebook, which contains the conversations we've been reading. He tells her that the woman is imaginary and he's working on a novel. Is this true or more deception?

It's a slight novel, both literally and figuratively. It suffers in comparison to The Counterlife, though it is interesting to read the two together.