Deception, by Philip Roth

These days, it’s not very fashionable to read Philip Roth (1933-2018), but Deception (1990) is remarkably prescient. “Can you explain to the court why you hate women?” “But I don’t hate them.” “If you do not hate women, why have you defamed them and denigrated them in your books?  Why have you abused them in your work and in your life?” “I have not abused them in either.” “We had heard testimony from expert witnesses, expert witnesses who have pointed to chapter and verse to support their every judgement.  And yet you are trying, are you, to tell this court that these authorities with unimpeachable professional standards, testifying under oath in a court of law, are either mistaken or lying?  May I ask you, sir—what have you ever done that has been of service to women?” “And why do you, may I ask, take the depiction of one woman as a depiction of all women? Why do you imagine that your expert witnesses might not themselves be contradicted by a different gang of expert witnesses? Why—?” “You are out of order! It is not for you to interrogate the court but to answer the questions of the court.  You are charged with sexism, misogyny, woman abuse, slander of women, denigration of women, defamation of women, and ruthless seduction, crimes all carrying the most severe penalties.  You are one with the mass of men who have caused women great suffering and extreme humiliation—humiliation from which they are only now being delivered, thanks to the untiring work of courts such as this one.  Why did you publish books that cause women suffering?  Didn’t you think that those writings could be used against us by our enemies?” (pp.113-4) Deception is a cleverly constructed novella about an adulterous couple and their affair.  The reader has to deduce everything about them from their intense, claustrophobic encounters, and it’s delivered entirely in dialogue. He’s an unemployed Jewish English writer in the bedsit where the affair is conducted.  It’s furnished minimally, with just two chairs, a desk and his books.  It’s where he writes.  They make love, presumably, on the floor.  (Presumably, because sex is barely mentioned in this story.)  He’s named Philip, but I call him The Writer. She’s an American with a husband and child.  (A nanny facilitates her absences from home). She talks about herself a lot; there’s not so much from him.  She tells him all the intimate details of her marital discontent; his reason for barely mentioning his wife is trademark Roth humour: “Perhaps it works better if only one participant in an adulterous affair complains about domestic dissatisfactions. If both go at it, it’s unlikely there’d be time for the thing itself.” (p.50) The narrative is interrupted by a Czech prostitute who has come to the writer because she wants The Writer to help her write her story.  There are no stories about prostitutes by prostitutes, she says. Ever since she fled the Russian tanks in 1968, men have taken advantage of her.  The reader wonders, will The Writer take advantage of her too? At page 99, Roth starts playing games with his reader… “You see the writer becoming more and more manipulative, slier and craftier and underhanded.” Yes indeed, this is a novel about deceit, and it deceives the reader right up to the Big Reveal at the end. BEWARE SPOILERS: Only read this if you know you’re never ever going to read the book. If like me the reader notices the way that The Writer asks leading questions so that the details of her life with The Boring Husband are revealed, it’s because the novella is not what it seems to be.  The book concludes with The Writer’s wife reading this notebook and accusing him of having an affair.  He explains—but his writing is so convincing that she doesn’t believe him—that it’s a novel, and that he’s written a composite character by drawing on the real life women that they both know and imagining the rest.  And he goes off in a huff because she can’t/won’t understand that this is what writers do… And then… The final pages consist of a phone call between The Writer and the American woman some time later, where she says she read his book and recognised herself in it, and her friends recognise her too.  But they never had an affair: they agree that this story is about an imagined affair, the affair they would like to have had. Scholars of Roth, no doubt, will have analysed this novella down to its last punctuation mark, but I liked this essay by Sean Hooks. Written in 2020, ‘The Inceptions Of Deception, Reconsidering Philip Roth’s Most Underrated Book’ notes that the 30th anniversary of the publication of this book coincides with when ‘the times are dramatic and we dramatize them’.  If you have time, do read it. Author: Philip RothTitle: DeceptionPublisher: Simon and Schuster, 1990ISBN: 0671703749, hbk., first edition, 208 pagesSource: Op Shop find. with an intriguing note (in pen, in capitals) on the flyleaf: “Aggy pipe along fence under rock, Hillview Quarry Dromana.” Was this a note to a

Deception, by Philip Roth

These days, it’s not very fashionable to read Philip Roth (1933-2018), but Deception (1990) is remarkably prescient.

“Can you explain to the court why you hate women?”

“But I don’t hate them.”

“If you do not hate women, why have you defamed them and denigrated them in your books?  Why have you abused them in your work and in your life?”

“I have not abused them in either.”

“We had heard testimony from expert witnesses, expert witnesses who have pointed to chapter and verse to support their every judgement.  And yet you are trying, are you, to tell this court that these authorities with unimpeachable professional standards, testifying under oath in a court of law, are either mistaken or lying?  May I ask you, sir—what have you ever done that has been of service to women?”

“And why do you, may I ask, take the depiction of one woman as a depiction of all women? Why do you imagine that your expert witnesses might not themselves be contradicted by a different gang of expert witnesses? Why—?”

“You are out of order! It is not for you to interrogate the court but to answer the questions of the court.  You are charged with sexism, misogyny, woman abuse, slander of women, denigration of women, defamation of women, and ruthless seduction, crimes all carrying the most severe penalties.  You are one with the mass of men who have caused women great suffering and extreme humiliation—humiliation from which they are only now being delivered, thanks to the untiring work of courts such as this one.  Why did you publish books that cause women suffering?  Didn’t you think that those writings could be used against us by our enemies?” (pp.113-4)

Deception is a cleverly constructed novella about an adulterous couple and their affair.  The reader has to deduce everything about them from their intense, claustrophobic encounters, and it’s delivered entirely in dialogue.

He’s an unemployed Jewish English writer in the bedsit where the affair is conducted.  It’s furnished minimally, with just two chairs, a desk and his books.  It’s where he writes.  They make love, presumably, on the floor.  (Presumably, because sex is barely mentioned in this story.)  He’s named Philip, but I call him The Writer.

She’s an American with a husband and child.  (A nanny facilitates her absences from home). She talks about herself a lot; there’s not so much from him.  She tells him all the intimate details of her marital discontent; his reason for barely mentioning his wife is trademark Roth humour:

“Perhaps it works better if only one participant in an adulterous affair complains about domestic dissatisfactions. If both go at it, it’s unlikely there’d be time for the thing itself.” (p.50)

The narrative is interrupted by a Czech prostitute who has come to the writer because she wants The Writer to help her write her story.  There are no stories about prostitutes by prostitutes, she says. Ever since she fled the Russian tanks in 1968, men have taken advantage of her.  The reader wonders, will The Writer take advantage of her too?

At page 99, Roth starts playing games with his reader…

“You see the writer becoming more and more manipulative, slier and craftier and underhanded.”

Yes indeed, this is a novel about deceit, and it deceives the reader right up to the Big Reveal at the end.


BEWARE SPOILERS: Only read this if you know you’re never ever going to read the book.

If like me the reader notices the way that The Writer asks leading questions so that the details of her life with The Boring Husband are revealed, it’s because the novella is not what it seems to be.  The book concludes with The Writer’s wife reading this notebook and accusing him of having an affair.  He explains—but his writing is so convincing that she doesn’t believe him—that it’s a novel, and that he’s written a composite character by drawing on the real life women that they both know and imagining the rest.  And he goes off in a huff because she can’t/won’t understand that this is what writers do…

And then…

The final pages consist of a phone call between The Writer and the American woman some time later, where she says she read his book and recognised herself in it, and her friends recognise her too.  But they never had an affair: they agree that this story is about an imagined affair, the affair they would like to have had.

Scholars of Roth, no doubt, will have analysed this novella down to its last punctuation mark, but I liked this essay by Sean Hooks. Written in 2020, ‘The Inceptions Of Deception, Reconsidering Philip Roth’s Most Underrated Book’ notes that the 30th anniversary of the publication of this book coincides with when ‘the times are dramatic and we dramatize them’.  If you have time, do read it.

Author: Philip Roth
Title: Deception
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 1990
ISBN: 0671703749, hbk., first edition, 208 pages
Source: Op Shop find. with an intriguing note (in pen, in capitals) on the flyleaf: “Aggy pipe along fence under rock, Hillview Quarry Dromana.” Was this a note to a fellow crim, to let him know where the loot was stashed? Have I sabotaged their plans by buying the book, or has the loot already been collected?