Perhaps Philip Roth’s most daring novel (which is really saying something), “Deception” reads like a giant “Fuck You” to traditional story structure. It is a book composed entirely of post-coital conversation, relying on the dialogue itself and deprived completely of dialogue tags or exposition. Risky? Very. Especially considering the protagonist is a man named Philip Roth, and the conversations are had with his mistresses.
I didn’t enjoy “Deception,” despite its interesting narrative strategy. I thought (like “The Counter-Life”) that there were a great many conversations throughout that I’d simply heard before in other Roth books. The elevated speech, the pretentiousness of the dialogue, starts to wear on you a little, also. You forgive a bit of it because you figure we’re dealing with hyper-realistic intellectuals…but then you just become annoyed with the dialogue’s overall perfection.
Like “The Counter-Life,” though, “Deception” redeems itself by its end. It offers the reader a remarkable turn in the last fifteen pages that calls into question everything we’ve read up until that point. We question what has been real, what has been made up by the protagonist, how many lies upon lies have been told, and in service of what? And in no way does it feel manipulative. We understand entirely why there might have been lies. I would also compare “Deception” to “The Prague Orgy.” Dull and seemingly pointless for 40-50 pages, then remarkably interesting for the final chapter. I’m glad I read it, because there is something rewarding to be had in every Roth book, but I wonder if this novel (like “Prague Orgy” and “Everyman”) would have simply been better served as a short story, and if Roth’s current aversion to short stories has prevented him from creating some classics of the form, and has made him turn out a couple forgettable and ill-conceived novels.