When the word first came down that Philip Roth was at work on his “memoirs,” it sounded like some kind of bad joke. What else (an ungenerous observer might inquire) had Roth been doing for the 30 years of his literary career but producing an ongoing autobiography, picking obsessively through his own past and recycling his life experiences, slightly transformed, as literature?

Now The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography is out, and it is a bad joke, though not one anybody could have anticipated. In characteristically Rothian fashion, the joke is both on him and by him, and the evidence for either is so snarled and intertwined that disentangling it makes for the most interesting aspect of what is otherwise a rather tiresome piece of writing.

Roth’s previous book, The Counterlife, took up the trail of Nathan Zuckerman, the latest (and it looks like the last) in his succession of fictional alter egos. Like Roth, Zuckerman is a writer who shapes his fiction by transforming the materials of his own life. With its unpredictable shifts between Zuckerman’s imagined “counterlives” and his “real” life, The Counterlife was, among other things, a sort of primer on how that transformation takes place, a suggestion of what the relation between life and art might be for a writer not unlike Roth. (He had attempted a similar project on a much smaller scale with the two introductory stories by Peter Tarnopol in My Life as a Man; those stories marked Zuckerman’s first appearance.)

The feints and switches of The Counterlife may have been dizzying and disorienting, but there was always a sense that Roth was carefully ensconced behind the scenes, controlling and manipulating things like a master. In this book he’s stepped out onto the stage himself. Unsurprisingly, the result is that he gets tangled up in his own puppet strings.

The Facts begins with a letter from Roth, addressed to Zuckerman. The two men apparently maintain a friendly but somewhat formal relationship (they address one another by last names, in a near parody of American masculinity: “Dear Zuckerman. . . . Sincerely, Roth”). In forthright, slightly brusque tones, Roth describes briefly how he came to commit these memories to paper. Following some sort of mental breakdown, he felt the need to retrace his steps, to follow his unhappiness back to its source. The manuscript he’s come up with, he asserts, is a rarity for him: It represents experience untransformed by the power of imagination. “If in one way The Counterlife can be read as fiction about structure,” he claims, “then this is the bare bones, the structure of a life without the fiction.” The letter begins by asking Zuckerman whether he thinks the enclosed manuscript should be published, and concludes with a question that echoes with embarrassing poignancy throughout the rest of the book: “Is it any good?”

What follows is the autobiography proper: not a connected or even coherent life story by any means, but a series of discrete vignettes touching on the experiences that made Roth The Writer He Is Today. They cover his childhood growing up in the heavily Jewish Weequahic section of Newark; his career as “Joe College,” the idealistic student of literature at Bucknell; the early stages of his relationship with his crazed and terrifying wife, who appears in My Life as a Man as “Maureen Johnson” and in this book as “Josie Jensen”; his run-ins with the American Jewish establishment over charges of “self-hatred” and “anti-Semitism” aroused by Goodbye, Columbus; and finally, his emergence from the scarring marriage (thanks to his wife’s death in an automobile accident), and the burst of artistic energy that culminated in Portnoy’s Complaint.

This is as far as the autobiography takes us, and it’s an appropriate terminus. It was with Portnoy, after all, that Roth really came into his own as a writer–an experience that left him both giddily triumphant and, to judge from his immediately subsequent novels (Our Gang, The Breast, The Great American Novel), without the foggiest notion of what to do next with his talent.

The first and most overtly ironic joke in this book is signaled by the title itself: The Facts is probably the most profoundly fictitious thing Roth has ever written. For decades, Roth has been reinventing himself–as Alexander Portnoy, as David Kepesh, as Peter Tarnopol, and (most brilliantly) as Nathan Zuckerman–in books that played fast and loose with the facts but did manage to reach some aesthetic and psychological truths. Now, in a book studded with names and dates, specific locales and minor corroborations, he’s produced a book whose every page is redolent of falsehood. You don’t need any firsthand knowledge of the man–you almost don’t need to have read his books–to recognize that however much of this account may be accurate, almost none of it is true.

It’s not that Roth is exculpatory toward his young self, either; there are numerous occasions, particularly in discussing his literary aspirations and his activities as a student, when he is startlingly harsh and unforgiving to the youth he once was. But without the protective screen of fiction, he turns cautious. The book is littered with telltale signposts pointing toward evasions and ellipses and toward the smoothing over of this or that unpleasant aspect.

His Newark boyhood, in this version, was a blissful idyll, bolstered by strong family and community ties and spent eagerly learning to be a Jew, an American, and a man. Why, in that case, when he graduated from high school, was the prospect of college so inextricably bound up in his mind with “the dream of away” (italics Roth’s)? To suppose, as many readers have, that Roth and Portnoy are one (and thus that his parents are Jack and Sophie) is simpleminded. But the product of the hopelessly idealized childhood presented here could never have written Portnoy’s Complaint–not because he couldn’t have invented the more complicated upbringing depicted there, but because the task wouldn’t have held much interest for him.

Halfway through his “Joe College” chapter, Roth alludes, almost in passing, to a “terrible fight” with his father one Christmas vacation. The fight has to do with his “weekend whereabouts after midnight”–a subject about which he is as reticent with the reader as he must have been with the old man. Verbal hostilities rage bitterly for two days, a “fragile truce” is reached, and that’s that. To hear Roth tell it, the momentary flare-up arrived out of nowhere and vanished as it had come. Come on.

The chapters on Josie aren’t evasive so much as reductionist; here Roth yields to his fictionalizing impulse. The chapter entitled “Girl of My Dreams,” for example, concludes thrillingly: “Without doubt she was my worst enemy ever, but, alas, she was also nothing less than the greatest creative-writing teacher of them all, specialist par excellence in the aesthetics of extremist fiction. Reader, I married her.” That’s brilliantly written; it’s also pure fiction.

There are, of course, wonderful nuggets scattered around. For example, there’s the remarkable proposition that it was the outsized, vulgar hatefulness of Lyndon Johnson that helped inspire the unbridled rage that characterized Portnoy’s Complaint. There is a short, nicely rendered anecdote about some dinnertime repartee shared with Bobby Kennedy. And I especially enjoyed the image of young Roth standing up in his college Shakespeare class the day after Eisenhower defeated Stevenson and haranguing his fellow students for their cloddishness, all while pretending to discuss Coriolanus.

But there are a number of important aspects of Philip Roth that are conspicuously absent, beginning, astoundingly, with the subject of The Counterlife’s embarrassing curtain speech: his cock. He does admit to three or four “fantasy-ridden, entangled couplings” with Josie during a rocky period before their marriage, and speaks loftily of the “earnest physical fervor” of his subsequent romantic attachment; in one particularly bloodless sentence, he mentions choosing one college fraternity over another because “I believed I would need a slightly more profligate, less utopian atmosphere in which to realize even a tenth of the nefarious erotic prospectus that I had been secretly preparing for years.”

Again, knowledge of the novels isn’t even necessary to discern in Roth a man for whom sex is a little more important, a little more interesting, than that. The cloaked hints are sprinkled casually throughout the book. What was that nefarious erotic prospectus anyway? And what about the good-looking wife of his English professor, for whom young Philip “allowed himself to fall” during a week in Maine with the couple–surely they weren’t discussing Henry James together? My favorite throwaway is in the following utterly nonchalant sentence: “At my first meeting with an attractive young English journalist whom my English publisher had arranged to have interview me, I offered an invitation, which she gracefully declined, to spend the rest of the afternoon with me in a hotel.” What an adorable scene that must have been!

Similarly, the manic, ribald humor that has enlivened Roth’s novels is alluded to quite often, and even identified as one of the things that makes him a distinctively Jewish writer. But it never actually shows up in this book.

Most glaring of all is the lapse in one of Roth’s hallmarks as a writer, his virtuosic control of language. Lacking the emotional protection of an alter ego, Roth now tries to hide behind his prose, and it doesn’t work–the writing is stiff and ungainly to an unprecedented degree. The strain shows most clearly in the book’s swollen sentences:

“Like the overprotected young victims in those first short stories, who stood for something like the life of the mind, I was turning out to be too sensitive, though not to religious so much as to spiritual differences at a university where the dominant tone seemed to emanate from the large undergraduate population enrolled in the commerce-and-finance program–students preparing to take ordinary workaday jobs in the booming postwar business world, which not only my literary ideals but also my loosely held suspicion of the profit motive had pitted me against since I’d begun to read the New York paper P.M., when I was fourteen.”

When the syntax isn’t distended it’s convoluted:

“Charlotte Maurer helped get me an interview at the New Yorker, and through the influence of the novelist Charles Jackson, who wrote copy at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, where my brother was then an art director, I had gotten to see Roger Straus, Jackson’s publisher, who twenty years later became my own publisher.”

These aren’t the long, tumbling sentences of Portnoy’s Complaint, fueled by passion and an exhilarating lack of restraint. On the contrary, they’re informed by an oppressive cautiousness, an endless impulse to qualify and modify what’s already been said.

The answer to Roth’s plaintive query is tough to mistake. The book isn’t any good; it could very well not have been published. And then Roth gives us the punch line, not (as in Portnoy) a simple one-liner, but a genuine 35-page roundhouse to the kisser: Zuckerman’s reply.

“Don’t publish” is only the beginning. In page upon page of vibrant and beautifully written prose (a relief after Roth’s dusty, professorial contortions), Zuckerman exposes the book’s shortcomings with pitiless accuracy. Compared to Zuckerman, Roth is a feeble, poorly shaped character, “the least completely rendered of all your protagonists.” His recollections are shaped by concealment, inhibition, indirection. The portraits of Roth’s parents are incomplete and patently implausible, and his strained relations with the Jewish community are related with an uncharacteristic disingenuousness. “You seem almost to indicate,” says Zuckerman sternly, “that sex has never really compelled you.” Most incisively, Zuckerman upbraids Roth for his treatment of “Josie” as some kind of fictional embodiment of the demonic, instead of as a real person and a very potent adversary; in a powerfully argued passage, he urges Roth to use her real name.

And now here is the book, a slender hardcover volume whose dust jacket is adorned with pictures from Roth’s high school yearbook (the caption under his reads, “A boy of real intelligence / Combined with wit and common sense”). Everything with which Zuckerman rightly takes issue is here, down to the still pseudonymous “Josie.” His fearless, unhesitating advice–“Don’t publish”–has been ignored.

There’s a kind of vertigo that develops from pondering the circularity of this “debate” between a writer and his character, and the reader isn’t the only one who feels it. Zuckerman describes a conversation with his wife in which he laments, “I’m not even sure any longer which of us he’s set up as the straw man. I thought first it was him in his letter to me–now it feels like me in my letter to him.” The question is, what kind of inner debate is reflected in this fictionalized exchange, and how did this book emerge from it? Let’s consider a number of possible hypotheses.

Zuckerman’s critique is nothing more than Roth’s attempt to forestall legitimate criticism of a work he essentially believes in. A number of reviewers have had the temerity to suggest this disrespectful explanation, which makes Roth, at 55, into an emotionally insecure neophyte. Forget it.

Roth is in a predicament similar to the one faced by Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist in Dead of Night: his creation has somehow come to life and turned on him. Like the ventriloquist’s dummy, Zuckerman can say and do anything he wants, knowing that Roth will have to take the rap.

There’s also the butterfly/Chinese philosopher option. Perhaps it was Zuckerman, all along, who invented Roth rather than the other way around. The semiautobiographical but self-concealing novelist is one of Zuckerman’s most brilliant conceptions; in this book (by Zuckerman) “Roth” struggles with the pitfalls of straight autobiography.

Roth wrote the book, recognized its flaws, debated with himself over whether to publish it, and finally decided simply to lay the debate out before his readers–to testify, in a sense, to his own confusion. This explanation may not be very flattering to him, but it has an air of plausibility.

The Facts is, indirectly, meant as an answer to critics, a defense of Roth’s method of writing. “I told you all along that I wasn’t simply writing my own life story, but you wouldn’t believe me,” he says. “Well, here’s my life story. See how pallid it is, how unentertaining, how unaesthetic? Now do you understand why I use Zuckerman?” The defensiveness of this stance would not be at all out of keeping with what we know of Roth.

I tend to believe that The Facts isn’t really about Roth at all; it’s about Zuckerman. It’s about clarifying and formalizing, for himself and his readers, the ongoing artistic partnership between Roth and this other Jewish American writer who is and is not Roth. After having his say about the autobiography, Zuckerman closes his letter with a few pages on the subject of himself and his own life, which are the crux of the entire book. His gentile English wife, Maria, wants only a quiet, undisturbed domestic existence; but there are troubling signs that Roth has some other, more turbulent fate in store for them. What is going to happen to us next? they want to know.

Well, what is going to happen next? For Roth, after the cohesive achievement of the Zuckerman books, that’s the $64 question, just as it was after Portnoy. The biographical snippet of his breakdown may or may not be connected, but it’s not hard to read Roth’s impasse in the novels. The Counterlife was as far as he could go in a certain direction. For Roth and Zuckerman to continue to work together profitably (and I think the book leaves no doubt that they’re going to), they needed to recharge their collaborative batteries.

The Facts reads like the work of a writer marking time. It may be that Roth’s introduction of “Philip Roth” as his own newest literary character is intended to do nothing more than give Zuckerman some much-needed respite between his exertions of the past ten years and those of the next. But the book’s final pages read suspiciously like an artistic agenda. I think the main project here has been to find a pretext for getting the two of them, author and protagonist, onto the same ground together; and I suspect it’s the energy generated by the combination of these two powerful, headstrong wills and intellects that is going to fuel Roth’s future work.

The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography by Philip Roth, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.