STIFLING an initial irritation at Philip Roth's Zuckerman Bound takes some doing, but the questions raised by this reissue of Roth's last three novels, with a coda of 83 new pages, make the effort ultimately worthwhile. Still, it is a lot to ask readers to sympathize with the angst of Nathan Zuckerman, a brainy, talented writer who over the course of the trilogy makes himself so rich he need never write again.

One sign of Roth's talent though is that he can bring off this 800-page kvetch -- just. Zuckerman's problems vault from the personal to the cultural because of Roth's persistence in treating Zuckerman as a writer, someone with a higher claim. Other examples of writers abound in the trilogy, both fictional and real, while portions of all three novels lovingly celebrate the life of the mind, as only a bright accomplished boy from a provincial home might have enjoyed it in the University of Chicago of Robert Maynard Hutchins. Roth is that rare writer who is able to make ideas, other writers, and intellectualism itself interesting, attractive. What confounds Zuckerman though, just as it appears to do Roth, is the question of the writer's function.

Zuckerman is surrounded by people who are things: his father is a chiropodist, his brother a dentist, his college buddy a doctor. Each can face unblinking the question writers come to loathe: "What do you do?" The answer tortures Zuckerman, so each of the books provides versions of the writer's life, to be examined and found flawed. The simplest version, and that closest to a layman's stereotype of the answer, is E.I. Lonoff, of whom young Zuckerman seeks benediction. Lonoff inhabits a geographical garret of enviable comfort -- rich wife, cozy fire, endless time -- but can see his gift only as an affliction. "I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again . . . And I ask myself, Why is there no way but this for me to fill my hours?" In Zuckerman's rendition, Lonoff is cruel, parasitical, the negation of all Zuckerman had come to find and celebrate.

So Zuckerman celebrates life, carnality, his own past in his novel Carnovsky, only to discover a parody of himself in a distant relative but doggedly close admirer, Alvin Pepler; also from Newark, Pepler has a memory of staggering proportions. In Pepler Zuckerman learns that the mimetic function of writing is also parasitical, distorting the life it preserves while remaining blind to life as it continues. Enraged, Pepler screams at Zuckerman, "To you Newark is Uncle Max in his undershirt, watering the radishes at night! . . . Moron! . . . Newark is bankruptcy! Newark is ashes! Newark is rubble and filth!" Even more devastating for Zuckerman though is that the man whose Newark, whose life, Zuckerman has tried to preserve, his father, curses the writer with his dying breath.

The third novel, The Anatomy Lesson, produces the most despairing portrait of the writer, in Zuckerman's bitter transmogrification of the critic Milton Appel into a pornographer lower than Larry Flynt. Zuckerman is both intrigued and horrified to discover that what begins as a joke, revenge for a stinging review, becomes an obsession, as "Appel" pours out of imitative Zuckerman. His effusions are unquotable, but their gist is plain; if writing can neither elevate nor commemorate, then it must be solely to titillate, which gives the pornographer a claim to existence and function far more solid than that which the writer may make.

Yet this too Roth rejects, in the complete physical and mental breakdown of Zuckerman. Roth's dissection of writing as a profession, a function, is pitiless, as though a writer is a madman committing suicide by cannibalism: "If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there's no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction, your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your understanding -- never enough . . . The work draws on you and draws on you and you begin to wonder how much of you there is to draw on. Some writers turn to the bottle, others the shotgun."

Strangely, one image of the writer does survive this onslaught, that of Anne Frank. This diarist -- "of all the Jewish writers, from Franz Kafka to E.I. Lonoff . . . the most famous," "read in twenty different languages by twenty million people" -- recurs in each story, including the coda, but always in ways which suggest that Roth cannot stop himself from wondering why she wrote. Locked in a hidden room, denied publisher, readers, even a future, against all logic Anne Frank continued to write. Zuckerman Bound suggests in "The Prague Orgy," the new novella which ends this book, that Zuckerman too defies the logic which makes him want to escape writing for medical school. Roth returns Zuckerman to first-person narration in notebooks that tell of Zuckerman's attempts to retrieve the manuscripts of Sisovsky, a dead Yiddish writer.

Surprisingly, what Roth accomplishes in this final section of Zuckerman Bound may be the most despairing attack on writing of all; instead of heroes, his Prague writers and intellectuals are cowards, broken men and women. Sisovsky, the perfect writer -- dead himself, never published, his works written in a language no one in Czechoslovakia spoke -- may in fact have been a banal liar, while the emigr,e son who attempts (through Zuckerman) to rescue these works may be doing so to steal them, and thus reap a counterfeit fame. Zuckerman, the man who has longed to do something, and who in rescuing another writer would have seemed to have found the perfect something for a writer to do, instead botches his job so badly that he loses the manuscripts and gets himself chucked out of the country. B

OTH ROTH's work in championing Czech writers

and the cover of Zuckerman Bound, which has a constructivist, Mayakovsky look, would suggest that

Roth believes cultures exist for which the answer "I write" has meaning; in "The Prague Orgy" Zuckerman imagines "Styron washing glasses in a Penn Station barrom, Susan Sontag wrapping buns at a Broadway bakery, Gore Vidal bicycling salamis to school lunchrooms in Queens." Unexpectedly, Roth, or Zuckerman, here rejects this as meaningful, because "there's nothing that can't be done to a book, no cause in which even the most innocent of all books cannot be enlisted, not only by them, but by you and me." Because a writer must have readers, Roth says, writing is always doomed: "a book isn't as mighty as the mind of its most benighted reader."

This bleakness is the greater pity because Roth is a rarity among American writers, someone with intelligence, education, and talent; all he seems to lack is that which many American writers do, a subject. America has never accepted as adequate the only answer writers can offer to the "what-do-you- do" question; America is too large, too diverse, too rich to have a culture, because its people have too little in common. Zuckerman and Roth struggle a lifetime to break free of the smothering little culture of immigrant Ashkenazim into which they were born, only to find when they break free that nothing waits beyond. Once free, Zuckerman is reduced to writing about what little we all do share, our consumerism and carnality, to earn what "wasn't literary fame, it was sexual fame."

Yet even Zuckerman keeps a notebook, while Roth has put before us still another Zuckerman; each continues to write. For fame, for money, for honor? Zuckerman Bound would seem to say no, that even fame, money, and honor do not make the game worth the candle. The only explanation then for writing would seem to lie in the haunting figure of Anne Frank, a writer confined to a secret room, to oblivion and extermination. She wrote, ultimately, only because she could not do otherwise; Zuckerman Bound seems to argue that real writing begins only beyond the pale of prudence, where writing's only reward is punishment, where obsession is all which can sustain art. If Zuckerman Bound signals anything, it must be that Philip Roth has now rejected all rational answers to the "what-do-you-do" questions of the world, and is prepared either to fall silent or move on into what Henry James (in a quote via Lonoff to Zuckerman to us) called "the madness of art." Given all that Roth has to bring to the calling of novelist, we can only hope that he will part company with his now bound and slent Zuckerman, and move on.