PHILIP ROTH'S third novel about his alter ego, a

writer whom he calls Nathan Zuckerman, is intelligent, funny and substantial, yet oddly frustrating. That Roth is among the best and most interesting of American writers is beyond question: Goodbye, Columbus and The Ghost Writer, among his 13 previous books, certainly must be included in any reckoning of significant postwar fiction. But though he is on the short list of contemporary American novelists he must also be considered its most self-preoccupied, if not narcissistic, member; and since The Anatomy Lesson is to a large extent an attempt to explain away and legitimize this self-absorption, it turns out to be irritating as well as satisfying.

The book opens in 1973 as Zuckerman is about to reach his 40th birthday. For two decades he has been a writer: first an apprentice (The Ghost Writer), then the author (Zuckerman Unbound) of a scandalous best- seller about Jewish family life in his native New Jersey. In fairly rapid succession both his mother and father have died--shocked into the grave, according to his outraged brother, by Zuckerman's public display of the family linen. And now Zuckerman himself is sick: "When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she's not around, other women must do. Zuckerman was making do with four other women. He'd never had so many women at one time, or so many doctors, or drunk so much vodka, or done so little work, or known despair of such wild proportions. Yet he didn't seem to have a disease that anybody could take seriously. Only the pain-- in his neck, arms and shoulders, pain that made it difficult to walk for more than a few city blocks or even to stand very long in one place. Just having a neck, arms and shoulders was like carrying another person around."

What he seems to be carrying is a monkey, but what variety of monkey is a mystery. A psychiatrist suggests Zuckerman may be "the ineradicable infant, the atoning penitent, the guilty pariah . . . the remorseful son of the dead parents, the author of Carnovsky," but the more Zuckerman contemplates "expiation through suffering" the less comfortable he is with it: "His unconscious wasn't that unconscious. . . . If the Morse code of the psyche was indeed being tapped out along the wires of physical pain, the message had to be more original than 'Don't ever write that stuff again.' " Perhaps this is it:

"No, if the pain intended to accomplish something truly worthwhile, it would not be to strengthen his adamancy but to undo the stranglehold. Suppose there was the message flashing forth from a buried Nathan along the fibers of his nerves: Let the others write the books. Leave the fate of literature in their good hands and relinquish life alone in your room. It isn't life and it isn't you. . . . What if pain was offering Zuckerman the best deal he'd ever had, a way out of what he should never have got into? The right to be stupid. The right to be lazy. The right to be no one and nothing. Instead of solitude, company; instead of silence, voices; instead of projects, escapades; instead of twenty, thirty, forty years more of relentless doubt-ridden concentration, a future of diversity, of idleness, of abandon."

Zuckerman is tired of the writer's isolation, tired of brutal attacks by the critic Milton Appel, tired of rejection by his family, tired of accusations that he is a disloyal Jew. The monkey on his back is his typewriter, so he determines to get rid of it. He will be, as his fifth decade begins, a good little Jewish son. He will go to medical school ("My son, the doctor") and become an obstetrician: "After the popular triumph of his devilish act of aggression, the penitential act of submission. Now that his parents were gone he could go ahead and make them happy: from filial outcast to Jewish internist, concluding the quarrel and the scandal. Five years down the line, he'd take a residency in leprosy and be forgiven by all. Like Nathan Leopold. Like Macbeth, after ordering the last innocent carcass to be dumped in a ditch, joining Amnesty International."

So Zuckerman is off and winging, both literally (he flies from New York to Chicago to investigate medical school) and imaginatively, as he speculates on the writer's life and his relationship to his past. There is some marvelous stuff here. On writing: "It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom--not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one's writing, it's all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there's no better occupation to choose." On rebellious American writers who leave their native provinces: "they couldn't stand the ignorance, the feuds, the boredom, the righteousness, the bigotry, the repetitious narrow-minded types; they couldn't endure the smallness; and then they spent the rest of their lives thinking about nothing else." On the Jewish intelligentsia:

"The comedy is that the real haters of the bourgeois Jews, with the real contempt for their everyday lives, are these complex intellectual giants. They loathe them, and don't particularly care for the smell of the Jewish proletariat either. All of them full of sympathy suddenly for the ghetto world of their traditional fathers now that the traditional fathers are filed for safekeeping in Beth Moses Memorial Park. When they were alive they wanted to strangle the immigrant bastards to death because they dared to think they could actually be of consequence without ever having read Proust past Swann's Way. And the ghetto--what the ghetto saw of these guys was their heels: out, out, screaming for air, to write about great Jews like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Dean Howells. But now that the Weathermen are around, and me and my friends Jerry Rubin and Herbert Marcuse and H. Rap Brown, it's where oh where's the inspired orderliness of those good old Hebrew school days? Where's the linoleum? Where's Aunt Rose? Where is all the wonderful inflexible patriarchal authority into which they wanted to stick a knife?"

That is marvelous writing, bursting with life, and it scores a telling point. But what matters is that point- scoring is the business at hand, and Nate Zuckerman isn't playing. This is Philip Roth taking the latest round in a long-running literary feud--taking it brilliantly, to be sure--in what is passed off as fiction. It isn't enough to write, as he does: "Life and art are distinct. . . . That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone." Nor is it enough to say, "If Zuckerman wrote about what he didn't know, who then would write about what he did know?" These arguments, though facile and appealing, cannot disguise Roth's inability to lift his fiction outside of himself. He knows that he is "chained to self-consciousness" and "chained to retrospection," and in the guise of Zuckerman he manages in the end to lift himself at least part of the way out of both; yet the exploration of his own past and his own life as a writer remains the central, obsessive concern of his fiction.

Listen: The Anatomy Lesson is breathtaking stuff, fiction of grit and energy and pizazz; try it, you'll like it. But even at his very best, which he is awfully close to here, Roth turns only inward. Do we really need more novels, no matter how funny and perceptive, about what it is to be a writer--the literary equivalent of plays and movies about actors? No, we don't. There is enough self- flagellation in The Anatomy Lesson to make Sophie Portnoy happy, but cut through it all and what the novel says is: Me, me, ME! Enough is enough, already.