I’m pleased to kick off 2013 with the second in a series of recycled reads from my Goodwill in Los Feliz. The book is The Human Stain by Philip Roth, which forms the third in a loose trilogy following American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, and has been much lauded since its publication in 2000.
Critiquing Philip Roth is daunting, as the novel is damn good, but there is much to dissect from the perspective of a writer. Let me start by saying that I was bummed after reading The Human Stain because I felt like it had the potential to be one of the best books ever penned by an American author if it weren’t for a few vexing narrative decisions.
First things first. Who’s story is this anyway? Nathan Zuckerman is presented as the narrator in a key juncture in the life of the book’s protagonist Coleman Silk, a classics professor at a small New England college. We begin the novel shortly after Coleman’s wife has died, and he has been forced to retire after referring to absent students he’d never met as ‘spooks.’ Unknown to Silk, the students are African-American, and he becomes embroiled in a scandal that ruins his academic career.
Unfortunately, Zuckerman is only present at the beginning and end, with a bit of him mixed throughout the novel with the close third person perspectives of multiple characters: Faunia Farley, a janitor with a tortured past, her abusive ex-husband and Vietnam vet Les Farley, and Delphine Roux, a lonely young classics professor and careerist who plays an active role in Silk’s fall from grace.
The stories of these four characters are compelling, and Zuckerman’s half-role as narrator impedes our ability to truly commit to the dramatic world they inhabit. If the intention was to have Zuckerman uncover the shocking mystery that Silk was in fact part African American and completely turned his back on his past to better assimilate into American life, then why did Roth so richly delve into stories of other characters that the narrator would have no way of knowing?
The problem with Roth’s partial commitment to the “I” voice of Zuckerman is that he can’t maximize using the narrator as a detective to unearth the mysteries surrounding the life and death of Silk. And because we never fully commit to the world of the other characters, we have many lost opportunities for dramatic tension. For example, we start with the drama of the scandal and retirement completed; we know far in advance the Silk will die; and the description of the supposed murder of Silk by the jealous Les Farley is described in a single sentence.
The novel’s half-commitment to unspooling a mystery and to the active portrayal of the tragic love triangle makes me feel like we are presented with two half-novels spliced together. Don’t get me wrong, only the genius of an author like Roth could have overcome these types of challenges with a truly memorable novel.
On another note, Philip Roth made quite a stir this year with an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker refuting the origin of The Human Stain, as well as the sad news reported in the French magazine Les inrockuptibles that he is retiring from novel writing. This is a loss for us all, as his later work, such as The Human Stain, challenges us to ask questions of ourselves and America.