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`Zuckerman Bound' stays on ground

Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue, by Philip Roth. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. 784 pp. $22.50. To his three previously published novels about the career of (Roth-like) novelist Nathan Zuckerman (``The Ghost Writer,'' ``Zuckerman Unbound,'' and ``The Anatomy Lesson, 1979-83''), Roth now adds an 84-page ``Epilogue'' entitled ``The Prague Orgy.'' And here is the completed work, in an imposing omnibus volume. This new story finds Zuckerman uneasy over his own literary success vis-`a-vis the oppressions visited on writers living in societies less hospitable to art: He meets a displaced Czech writer, S isovsky, in America, and agrees to go to Prague on an ``espionage mission,'' in the service of literature and also as a kind of penance.

While in Czechoslovakia, Zuckerman contends with hysterical admirers, phlegmatic ``underground'' artists, humorless representatives of a government that spies on everyone in sight, and a literary establishment that considers the popular 1940s novel, ``The Egg and I,'' ``an American masterpiece.'' Mostly, he fends off Sisovsky's estranged wife, Olga, herself a writer-celebrity, and also a no-nonsense primal woman whose sexual insistence deepens his apprehensions about ``the unforeseen consequences of art.''

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The novella is static and talky; its characters never stop lecturing one another. There are, sporadically, splendid one-liners, and gritty characterizations. But the spark isn't there; the story doesn't take off the way Roth's best writing does. Futhermore, its bitter conclusion, leaving Zuckerman ``bound'' to his realization that he's only ``a shallow, sentimental American Jew who thinks there is virtue in suffering,'' feels like a holding action. I don't believe Roth has said all he means to say by way of this self-tormenting alter ego -- and I expect to see the Zuckerman story keep on expanding.

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