Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: The Human Stain

The Human StainThe Human Stain by Philip Roth

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The novel follows Nathan Zuckerman as he tries to unravel his fascination with Coleman Silk, a former classics professor at Athena College who had resigned after a scandal that painted him a racist. Silk has found comfort with Faunia, a younger woman whose own trials have lead her to seek out tougher, more direct philosophy of life. After the pair meet a tragic end, Zuckerman starts examining the people & the town around them in order to make sense of the events leading to their death.

I struggled with this book & only finished it because my husband loves Philip Roth & I wanted to figure out why. I think Roth is a conflicted (& possibly insecure) writer whose style is meant primarily to provoke readers. There were parts of the story that were structured similarly to older Victorian novels but Roth soon interrupted himself with terse “racy” monologues about sex & stretches of unimaginative repetitive profanity. He also writes about pop culture & contemporary events in a shrill, combative tone as if they prove the worst aspects of his point without a doubt.

With that said, if you can force your way past all of these defense mechanisms (& it will not be easy), there are moments of vulnerable, real emotion & Roth is able to deliver his story in a less antagonistic way. He may struggle to capture his characters voices in first person, but he illustrates intimate moments between two people in third person well. There are also many interesting parallels between Zuckerman’s story & the themes of Greek classics at play & there is some fun in putting the pieces together. I even found myself sympathizing with Mark Silk & Delphine Roux, two characters originally set up as opposition to Coleman but who gain depth as the novel goes on. But for all of these more accessible ways into Roth’s story, he will not leave the reader alone & will keep pointing out that he’s manipulating the story until he finally calms down again in the last chapter & says his piece.

There are quite a few secondary topics in The Human Stain that still resonate in 2016: the fracturing of education, cultural apathy, how our ambition hurts others, the perils of living too much in our mind or our ideals, the persistence of media & falsehood in an all-access media age. (Quote:”Even if you demonstrate something’s a lie, in a place like Athena, once it’s out there, it stays.” Oh honey, you have no idea what’s coming.) So, I guess my suggestion to anyone interested in reading this book is to do some mental calculation. If any of the above appeals to you, just be aware that you’ll be exploring them with a difficult, angry author more interested in shouting his point at you than challenging you to consider his train of thought.

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