`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.''

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.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.