Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 31, 2021

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?


  1. I’ve skipped your spoiler section, because this does sound like a book I might want to read at some point. I read Roth’s Nemesis last year, about the polio outbreak in New York in the 1950s, and thought it was quietly brilliant and so relevant to the current covid-19 pandemic in showing how people react to infectious diseases before vaccination is made available.


    • Yes, I agree, Nemesis was brilliant. People say The Human Stain was his best book, have you read that?


      • No… the only other one I have read was The Plot Against America, which I didn’t like very much.


        • Yes, I’ve read that one too. I didn’t like it, but I did think it was a good representation of the way that American democracy can degenerate into awfulness, as we have now seen.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, suspect it was another prescient novel… be interesting to go back and reread it after the awfulness of the Trump years.


            • I’ve just re-read my own review from 2008, where I talk about it not being so credible, which just goes to show how naïve I was pre-Trump.

              Liked by 1 person

        • I really liked The plot against America, actually. It ended up in my having big discussions online about historical fiction, and what it is. This is really alternative history, but to me, that’s part of historical fiction. I found it fascinating. But, of course, I’ve lived in the USA twice so have a particular fascination.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I like the whole idea of alternative history. Clare Coleman’s Terra Nullius is a good example of that!


  2. Hi Lisa,
    Like I say, “Different strokes for different folks”. You liked it, I didn’t. ‘Deception’ is Roth answering his critics via a novel. ‘Deception’ is not the worst Roth I have read; that would be ‘Our Gang’ or ‘The Breast’. But I have also liked several of his novels including ‘The Plot Against America’, ‘The Ghost Writer’, ‘The Professor of Desire’, etc.


    • I think it probably helps that I know nothing about his personal life (and don’t want to know.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not fashionable, I love Philip Roth, his lucidity makes him analyze and see things before the rest of us. And I love his sense of humour.

    I didn’t read the spoilers because I want to read this, although I want to read Nemesis first, now that the Covid-19 epidemic has slowed down a bit.


    • I think he must have been an extraordinarily intelligent man… it shines through everything he writes, even when he’s not at his best.


      • I totally agree with you. Too intelligent for his own good.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t read this one but I didn’t skip the spoilers. I already have so many books on my list, I probably won’t ever get to this one. I do like Roth’s work but some of it makes me uncomfortable – which is the purpose, I suppose.


    • As an author, Karenlee, you’d love reading this to see how cleverly it’s constructed and how carefully the characterisation enables the reader to know who’s speaking, even though there’s no ‘he said’ / ‘she said’.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Just a comment. ‘American Pastoral’ captures the heartache of the 1960s so well and deserved the Pulitzer. I relate very strongly to ‘The Plot against America’ and would remind those who may have missed this, there is an excellent video series with accompanying analyses by the directors, writers and actors. Roth approved this filming shortly before his death and just before the Trump era.


    • Hi Ros, American Pastoral is one I don’t have, and strangely, it’s not included in 1001 Books. I will keep an eye out for it at Brotherhood Books, the only one they’ve got at the moment is The Plot Against America in Spanish!


  6. I don’t think I’ve read any Roth, but your review highlights just how many good authors stop being read, or read widely anyway, almost as soon as they stop writing.


    • Well, that’s true, but my comment was meant more to do with Roth in particular. Being branded a Dead White Male by literary activists of one sort or another has pushed some authors off the backlist altogether…
      Some of the dislike of Roth might be anti-Semitism because he’s upfront about being Jewish in his novels. It’s a thread in this one too.


  7. How interesting. I’ve read little Roth, and don’t usually feel strongly drawn to his work, but the meta elements of this appeal so I’ve skipped the spoiler. I may just have to check it out…


    • You could read it for Novellas in November! (If not this year, then some other year in the future…)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Is this not Roth’s attempt to be honest about the effect of his work? I mean to read Roth but have only recently got into Bellow. In particular, “Humbolt’s Gift” which I found energetic, entertaining and thought provoking. Thanks for this!


    • Ah well, there you have the reader’s dilemma. Is Roth pouring scorn on his accusers (‘expert witnesses’ and see the insertion of the word ‘gang’)? Is this ‘court’ the accusatory court of public opinion, using the language of a court of law but without its evidentiary requirements? Is he defending himself as a writer, preferring that each work be considered as a ‘depiction of one’ rather than accepting that the totality of his oeuvre paints a composite picture of (his idea of) womanhood?
      Or, as you suggest, is he, a man and a writer, caught out by societal changes that impact on the assessment of his writing, reflecting on his work and his attitudes?
      At the domestic level, I lived through the era of 1970-80s feminism, and knew men who respected the movement as their wives brought it into the home, and (not without struggle) gradually shed their attitudes and behaviours and became men of a different sort. (Much nicer). And I also knew men who dug in, refused to reflect on their version of masculinity, and mostly found themselves divorced. It was a difficult time at the personal level because people don’t readily adapt to sharing power even when they see the justice of it. Roth and others of his era had to work through this tectonic societal shift in the public eye and deal with it in their writing.
      A scholar of his work, analysing novels that came after this one from 1990 could perhaps answer these questions, and also interrogate the reception of the book in the 1990s, compared to how it is viewed now…

      Bellow is another interesting case. I haven’t read Humboldt’s Gift, but I loved The Adventures of Augie March!


  9. I’ve skipped the spoiler section too, just in case. I’ve only read a couple of Roths but wouldn’t mind reading more, and an novella, recommended by you, would be good.


    • The length would suit you!
      I’d love to see how you dissect it!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. So, you know I am spoilerphobic (except when it comes to saying whether a cat or dog comes through) so I automatically follow instructions when someone says that a spoiler is coming…but I cannot express adequately just how hard it was to avoid THIS spoiler with the additional detail about “ever in your life”. Sheesh, I am nearly desperate to know how devastatingly spoilery this must be, that one could never forget it. LOL (I’m not sure it’s so unpopular, I feel as though, since his death, more people have returned to his work. Could be someone else has already spoiled this one for me in some podcast or article…wouldn’t that be funny!)


    • *chuckle*
      That’s an interesting point though, that you make about podcasts. I hardly ever listen to them anyway, but you’ve given me an extra reason to avoid them!


      • They’re just like bookblogs in the sense that some prohibit spoilers, others allow them with ample warning, and still others don’t seem to care at all! I’m fond of the World Book Club’s selections, usually quite international in scope.

        Liked by 1 person

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