The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000) Vintage (2001) 384 pp
After finishing I Married a Communist — which I didn’t like — I didn’t know how long it’d be before I gained the courage to read the next book in Roth’s America trilogy, The Human Stain. But I did know that for many The Human Stain is Roth’s best book. And unlike I Married a Communist, The Human Stain was critically acclaimed and seemed to hark back to the success of American Pastoral, which I loved. So I picked The Human Stain off the stack . . . and didn’t ever want to put it down again.
I don’t know how to begin to take the measure of this book. Beginning with a broad stroke, the book overtly reaches back to the great themes of the Greek tragedies and arranges them in the unlikely context of America in 1998. In the first few pages we meet this book’s Jewish protagonist, Coleman Silk, fortunate enough to have his life analyzed, turned around, and reanalyzed by our narrator, Nathan Zuckerman. Coleman is a seventy-one-year-old classics professor voluntarily exiled from Athena College, where he was once a king. Coleman has just informed Nathan Zuckerman that as a mistress he has a thirty-four year-old cleaning woman from the college. In a short span of sentences we learn this even as Roth zooms his lense out to introduce the setting and some of the themes of the novel: we get the American flag waving in the back ground; Nathan explains “the ecstasy of sanctimony”; and we learn that it “was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.”
In excellent Roth form, the narrative takes us back and forth through time and location until we get a sense of who Coleman Silk is and why he is being cast as the protagonist in a Greek tragedy. He has caused an uproar in his community because one day in class he asked about two students who had as yet never attended class: “Do they exist? Or are they spooks?” It turns out the two students are black, and they, offended by the epithet “spooks,” soon file a complaint to the dean of faculty. Surprisingly, many faculty members side with the students, claiming that Professor Silk was racist. Here is the chorus, clamoring for purification. It is clear, however, that Coleman was not being racist; nevertheless, things get so ugly he resigns out of principle and vows to fight the college. In the midst of the struggle, his wife dies, he claims because of the stress the college placed on them. Now in exile, Coleman has settled with Faunia Farley, the new mistress who pretends she is illiterate.
The story soon takes an unexpected twist, however. Nathan Zuckerman takes us back into Coleman Silk’s hidden past, where we find that he was raised in East Orange, New Jersey, in a black family. Yes, Coleman himself is a black man wearing the mask of a white Jew. Indeed, one could say that his profession, his college, and all, that he is more white than most white men. A black person passing as white might appear unlikely, but this has happened, particularly in the time before the Civil Rights movement when it was just so much easier to get around (let alone get a job) as a white man in America. If you were pale enough, it could work. Roth delves into the mind of a man who would cast off his birth and family to assume a new role. Even before his momentous decision to live life as a white man, Coleman resents being classified with a group. Here is a passage taken from when he has left home to attend Howard, one of the nation’s most prestigious black colleges.
Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the of the we’s overbearing solidity, and he didn’t want anything to do with it or with the next oppressive we that came along either. You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we? Another place that’s just like that, the substitute for that?
We spend many pages on Coleman’s childhood and adolescence (all excellent pages), and we sense the oppressive atmosphere bearing down on this incredibly successful black man even in Roth’s subersive prose:
Yet on the Silks’ own modest tree-lined side street ordinary people needed not to be quite so responsible to God and the state as those whose vocation it was to maintain a human community, swimming pool and all, untainted by the impurities, and so the neighbors were on the whole friendly with the ultra-respectable, light-skinned Silks — Negroes, to be sure, but, in the words of one tolerant mother of a kindergarten playmate of Coleman’s, “people of a very pleasing shade, rather like eggnog” — even to the point of borrowing a tool or a ladder or helping to figure out what was wrong with the car when it wouldn’t start. The big apartment house at the corner remained all white until after the war. Then, in late 1945, when colored people began coming in at the Orange end of the street — the families of professional men mainly, of teachers, doctors, and dentists — there was a moving van outside the apartment building every day, and half the white tenants disappeared within months. But things soon settled down, and, though the landlord of fthe apartment building began renting to colored just in order to keep the place going, the whites who remained in the immediate neighborhood stayed around until they had a reason other than Negrophobia to leave.
Coleman’s white family does not know about his past. It is like a sin waiting to be uncovered, one that could be uncovered in the most tragic way, say when one of his children marries a white man but has a black child. Hopefully, if nothing else has, this gives a sense for how this book has the feel of Oedipus or The Bacchae. Roth weaves this strange secret into Coleman’s current life in 1998, and the irony is rich:
As a force, propriety is protean, a dominatrix in a thousand disguises, infiltratin, if need be, as civic responsibility, WASP dignity, women’s rights, black pride, ethnic allegiance, or emotion-laden Jewish ethical sensitivity. It’s not as though Marx or Freud or Darwin or Stalin or Hitler or Mao had never happened — it’s as though Sinclair Lewis had not happened. It’s, he though, as though Babbit had never been written. It’s as though not even that most basic level of imaginative thought had been admitted into consciousness to cause the slightest disturbance. A century of destruction unlike any other in its extremity befalls and blights the human race — scores of millions of ordinary people condemned to suffer deprivation upon deprivation, atrocity upon atrocity, evil upon evil, half the world or more subjected to pathological sadism as social policy, whole societies organized and fettered by the fear of violent persecution, the degradation of individual life engineered on a scale unknown throughout human history, nations broken and enslaved by ideological criminals who rob them of everything, entire populations so demoralized as to be unable to get out of bed in the morning with the minutest desire to face the day . . . all the terrible touchstones presented by this century, and here they are up in arms about Faunia Farley. Here in America either it’s Faunia Farley or it’s Monica Lewisnsky! The luxury of these lives disquieted so by the inappropriate comportment of Clinton and Silk! This, in 1998, is the wickedness they have to put up with. This, in 1998, is their torture, their torment, and their spiritual death.
One might think the weight of these large themes, would crush the individual characters in the novel, that the characters would be mere props for Roth’s ambitious trek through humanity. However, Roth achieves here what he himself calls the “juxtaposition of grandeur and intimacy” (yes, there’s metafiction at work here too; isn’t Roth always a bit solipsistic? a bit metafictional?). Despite these large themes working in the background, the characters remain fixed in the foreground, completely in focus. The characters are always given priority over theme. Indeed, in this book Roth succeeds in introducing us intimately to more characters than in any other Roth novel that I’ve read. Roth takes the time to explore these lives, from Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley, to Coleman’s nemesis at the college, Delphine Roux, and Faunia’s ex-husband Lester Farley. Roth even takes the time to put a personal face on a herd of milk cows and a black crow. Somehow, in all of the tangle that would normally be confusion in such an ambitious story, Roth is able to shine the light on the perfect detail to bring his characters achingly to life without distracting the reader from the whole, and that whole never distracts us from its pieces. This is master craftsmanship at work.