Philip Roth, “The Human Stain” (2000) – I started reading Philip Roth in basically the dumbest way: I picked up “The Plot Against America” as a teenager who was interested in alternate history fiction. Needless to say, I didn’t get whatever I was looking for, and wasn’t that interested in what was on offer from the man then enjoying his position atop the American literary heap. Many years later, my second Roth was “American Pastoral.” I didn’t and don’t like that one. I could see the talent. But you’re just not gonna hook me with “did you know that the New Left was an oedpial (or in this case, elektral) rebellion against :checks notes: Philip Roth’s generation, and to an extent, Philip Roth and his friends, personally??” And I’ve studied the New Left enough to not be, as they say, a fan.
But I read more, because I’ve committed myself to reading “important” writers, out of historical/critical interest even if I don’t think I’ll enjoy them. By the time I was reading “Portnoy’s Complaint,” I was pretty glad this commitment (compulsion?) led me back to Roth. There really is no one quite like him in terms of craft. I do think one of the reasons I can appreciate his work more now is because I have spent a number of years thinking about the craft of writing myself, though obviously not to the same effect (or in the same fields).
“The Human Stain” is about a dude getting cancelled! Except not really. It is funny to see some of the ways the “political correctness”/cancellation discourse has changed, or hasn’t. This was published in 2000 and was written, and is set, during the Clinton/Lewinski impeachment imbroglio. It’s in this background that Roth’s self-stand-in, Zuckerman, relates the story of Coleman Silk, star classicist and academic power-player at Athena University in the Berkshires, brought low by political correctness… or was he? Silk loses his job because of a campaign, a few years before the action of the novel starts, to do him in when he refers to two black students – who had never shown up in his class, he didn’t know who they were or what their race was – as “spooks.”
This is about a lot more than the hounding of an innocent high-end academic, though. In fact, we see relatively little of Silk’s booting, even as we learn the ins and outs of his life both before and after. It’s even implied that Silk could have fought, and likely won, but chose not to. Zuckerman meets Silk as Silk emerges from years of writing the indictment of the university that slandered him, that he sees as having killed his wife (his wife died during the contretemps)… and as Silk has decided to abandon the writing project. Silk has something else in his life- an affair with one of the cleaning staff at the school, who’s about half his age (note- she’s thirty-seven, Silk is seventy-one). Faunia, his new lover, has her own stuff going on, having lived through a history of abuse, survived the death of her two children, and is currently being stalked by her deranged Vietnam vet ex-husband.
I guess you could say that the strength of this novel is that everyone “has their own stuff going on,” as I so eloquently put it (with the interesting exception of Zuckerman, Roth’s narrator alter-ego, who we hear less about). We learn all about Faunia, her ex-husband, the French theory-lady who leads Silk’s accusers, various members of Silk’s family, and above all, Coleman Silk himself. In keeping with this book, and with Roth himself, Silk is a complex, fascinating, deeply frustrating character, who has led a brilliant life and done dark, fucked-up things. I don’t know how many spoilers we need to have for a decades-old literary fiction novel, but, just in case, SPOILERS: Coleman Silk, who spent his academic career depicting himself as a kind of Harold Bloom figure, complete with Jewish background, is, in fact, a black man who has spent decades “passing.” We go, unsparingly, into the logic of the decision, the will with which the young, ambitious, light-skinned black boy Silk decides to abandon his family and his beloved mother in order to live his dreams of success and, more than anything, of individuality- to be a him, rather than part of an “us.”
We get all of this over the course of a novel of average length, and more. It’s easy to describe this novel, and most of its features, in such a way that it sounds like the complaint of an obnoxious mid-twentieth century white American male intellectual, pissed that time is passing him by. These tropes are the sort of thing that a substantial portion of the critical internet, your Toasts and your Booktoks and what have you, were connected to a network in order to pass negative, usually “snarky,” judgment upon: the “political correctness gone mad” scenario that impels the book, the “they were the REAL racists!” angle, the woman depicted as an anti-intellectual “natural” woman-child and everything a seventy-something pedant needs, of course the French theory lady persecuting the old-school intellectual is sexually frustrated, etc. etc. And, in classic Roth fashion, there’s validity to all of that. Roth was an obnoxious midcentury intellectual over-achiever who did not care for any of the moralizing – good, bad, or indifferent – that has, historically, gone with pretty much every politics – left, right, and center – that took hold in America during his lifetime. He couldn’t necessarily have predicted our current situation, but he did have a good hard look at the nineties (a depressingly large portion of the landscape hasn’t changed since), and still dangled all these features out there, like a matador’s cape.
And, like Johnny Cash’s matador, he “killed just one more” (well, probably more than that, if his subsequent novels are any good). Nothing is simple for Roth, even when he says it is, he almost always complicates it with the left hand what he has narrators declare in ignorance about with his right (he actually comes pretty close to uncomplicatedly condemning the internet, but, hell, who can blame him). Things aren’t what they appear- but for Roth, that’s never a reason to ignore the appearances, or soften the aspects of either the depths or the surfaces of the human tragedies we create in order to spare our sensibilities. What this results in, when it works, are gripping narratives, needing little or nothing in the way of formal tricks, verbal pyrotechnics, or genre hooks to sustain the reader’s interest- just prose, polished to diamond clarity and hardness, about the complexities of being alive. I can’t really encapsulate everything that happens here, except to say it is, indisputably, human, in all the messiness that implies. *****