The Book Club

The Human Stain

Dear Brent:

If you’re a regular reader of Philip Roth novels, you probably reacted to The Human Stain the way I did, with a familiar mix of fond nostalgia–Hey, I missed this guy–and amazement at his gall: Don’t tell me he’s going to rant about this stuff again! This novel has been plunked down in the middle of a landscape that is geographically, socially, and tonally pure Roth. We’re back at Athena College, the bucolic but mediocre liberal arts school in the Berkshires where E.I. Lonoff, the aging Jewish novelist of The Ghost Writer, used to teach. We’re in the company of a commandingly intelligent and relentlessly alive male protagonist, former classics professor and Athena dean Coleman Silk, who has run afoul of the forces of ideological correctness, just as countless intelligent and vibrant Roth protagonists have before him. Silk has been hounded into retirement by a scandal in which he was accused of having used a supposedly racist epithet–“spooks”–to refer to some chronically absent students who, unbeknownst to him, are black.

The cast of Rothian character types continues. There’s Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, who narrates the novel. There’s Silk’s female nemesis, French professor Delphine Roux, a careerist riven by spasms of jealousy and spite that can only be alleviated by the torture of Silk. And then there are shiksas–oh boy, are there shiksas. Mainly, there’s Faunia Farley, the 34-year-old janitor with whom the wounded Silk recovers by having an affair. She’s the shiksa to end all shiksas, half woman and half animal: Having run away at an early age from a stepfather who’s a rapist, she is functionally illiterate, and her favorite companions are crows. Still, she’s sympathetic and stoically wise, unlike her many previous incarnations in Roth’s fiction, beautiful American blondes who survive horrifying childhoods of abuse and neglect only by becoming monsters themselves. Farley isn’t a monster. That function has been delegated to her ex-husband Les, a Vietnam vet and murderous stalker who is the most hackneyed Roth character to come along in a long time. Farley and her ex are the vehicles for the introduction, in this novel, of the second great theme of Roth’s work, or at least the second great theme of his last three novels, a trilogy devoted to the subject of American hysterias (American Pastoral was about ‘60s radicalism, I Married a Communist was about McCarthyism). The first great theme of Roth’s trilogy, conveyed in The Human Stain through the account of Silk’s humiliation, is that the simplifications of ideology quash all that is messily human in us. His second theme, Faunia and Les Farley’s theme, is the random madness of what Roth calls in American Pastoral “the indigenous American berserk”–a tornado of destructiveness that periodically rips through all the moral structures that are supposed to shelter and govern our lives.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention the news about this novel: It’s the first one in which Roth takes on race. Coleman Silk, we learn halfway through the novel, is not the Jew he has been pretending to be for his entire career. He is a very light-skinned black.

I have to say that I wasn’t convinced by Coleman’s blackness, and I’m eager to hear what you, with your research into the history of the light-skinned American black elite, have to say about it. The tale of young Coleman and how he happens to decide to pass for white, though compellingly told, strikes me as less an effort to re-create a particular social reality–that of a black man growing up in New Jersey in the 1940s and discovering himself to be brilliant, ambitious, and hopelessly limited by his color–than a way for Roth to revisit the great subject of his earlier novels: his ambivalence about being Jewish. After all, Coleman’s decision isn’t really motivated by his encounters with racism, just as the Roth who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint wasn’t mad about anti-Semitism. Coleman escapes into whiteness because he can’t stand being trapped by his own group, at having his identity as a black man defined by both the larger society and his own, rather than by himself:

You can’t let the big they impose its bigotry on you any more than you can let the little they become a we and impose its ethics on you. … Never for him the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical, inescapable moral we with its insidious E pluribus unum. … Instead, the raw I with all its agility.

Roth may think he’s wandering into Ralph Ellison territory (Invisible Man is one of his favorite American novels), but personally, I suspect that he’s no more interested in the black experience than he ever was, which is to say, not very. Roth is rarely able to work up passion for anything that doesn’t touch him directly. What appeals to him about Coleman’s story, I think, is this idea of passing as something that’s both necessary for Coleman’s survival as an individual and an act of incomprehensible cowardice and betrayal, particularly of his silently suffering mother. In other words, Coleman is there to give concrete expression to Roth’s guilt at his own earlier rebellions, a remorse that has been palpable in his writing since at least Patrimony, a memoir of his father’s death published in 1991.

Now, appropriating other people’s experiences and turning them into representations of your own may not be a bad thing–it’s what novelists do, after all. And before I even let you respond to this question, I’ve got to get one other thing out there. I may seem to be criticizing Roth for repeating himself, or creating characters who are less than fully realized, or being hopelessly self-involved, but I don’t mean to. Roth is who he is, and more power to him. He’s an egomaniacal genius whom I’d rather read than just about any other American writer I can think of. No one writes sentences like his, propelled by an unstoppable urgency but structured, mordant, and always animated by just the right detail. No one is less apologetic or more fervent about his moral seriousness, an admirable quality at a time when irony is the more pervasive mode, even if Roth does tend to hector his readers, as New Republic critic James Wood points out in his review of The Human Stain. No one subjects dangerously autobiographical material to as much will and intelligence and mastery, thereby redeeming what in the hands of anyone else would come off as self-pity or vengefulness. Wood is skeptical of this overexplicitness: Roth, says Wood, is “determined to illuminate what might better be crepuscular, to color what might better be gray, to haul into speakability the wordless.” That’s true, except I think that this obsessive, almost rabbinical love of exegesis lies at the heart of Roth’s accomplishment. Roth’s novels may not always work (in my opinion, The Human Stain is nowhere near as great as  American Pastoral or Sabbath’s Theater, my two favorite late-Roth books), but I won’t stop reading and rereading them anyway.