Nowadays, to attempt a critical investigation of the work of Philip Roth is to put oneself in the humiliating position of the flatfoot arriving at the scene of the crime only to discover that, yet again, he’s been beaten to it by the private eye, the eye who has not just cracked the case but got the girl and held the press conference. The eye is, of course, Roth himself. Any idea that might occur to us about the author has already occurred to him, only more intelligently. Roth, for these purposes, includes his brilliantly self-diagnosing and self-disputing writer-narrators Nathan Zuckerman, Peter Tarnopol, David Kepesh, and of course the invented character Philip Roth, Roth the author of fiction, Roth the (pseudo) memoirist, and Roth the interviewee, self-interviewer, and essayist. His first collection of critical writings is titled Reading Myself and Others: not only does he read himself like a book, he reads us like a book, too. Still, we must plod on. A crime has been committed and someone has to do the paperwork. Moreover, there is something fishy about the case: the perp, by his own confession, is none other than the private eye. Philip Roth did it.
Before we can go further into this conflation of art and criminality—before we can go anywhere—we must get some kind of a handle on the corpus. A new Roth publication these days includes, in the front matter, a “Books by Philip Roth” page on which his works are listed in subgroups (devised by the author, I assume) such as “Zuckerman Books” and “Roth Books” and “Nemeses: Short Novels.” The 31 (so far) titles course all the way down the page until they reach the distinctly deltaic shape made by “Other Books.” We’re looking at a kind of Nile of writing.