Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

At Howard he'd discovered that he wasn't just a nigger to Washington, D.C.--as if that shock weren't strong enough, he discovered at Howard that he was a Negro as well.  A Howard Negro at that.  Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the we's overbearing solidity, and he didn't want anything to do with it or 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?  Growing up in East Orange, he was of course a Negro, very much of their small community of five thousand or so, but boxing, running, studying, at everything he did concentrating and succeeding, roaming around on his own all over the Oranges and, with or without Doc Chizner, down across the Newark line, he was, without thinking about it, everything else as well.  He was Coleman, the greatest of the great pioneers of the I.

I took a disliking to Philip Roth's The Human Stain immediately.  I had been excited to read it; the synopsis sounded intriguing: a respected professor is hounded out of his job because he uses the word "spooks" to refer to two absent students he has never met, students who turn out to be black and take his wording as a slur.  Despite his public flaying, the professor, Coleman Silk, is secretly a black man passing as white.

What I didn't like was the way that Roth, writing in the 90's, began by situating Coleman's story in the context of the Clinton impeachment trial:

...in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism--which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country's security--was succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony.

Maybe it looked different then, but Roth's account of the impeachment seems tediously facile today--the same old smug line about Puritanism.  Coleman, too, becomes embroiled in a sex scandal, with an illiterate janitor named Faunia, which heaps more scandal upon him, though the affair is consensual and satisfying for both parties.  Ham-handedly, Roth wants us to draw a parallel between the Clinton-Lewinsky and Coleman-Faunia.  Furthermore, he wants to set the novel in the larger context of American shaming, with its bogeymen: nosy parkers and buttinskis, armed with pitchforks.  If that's the way you remember Bill Clinton, then The Human Stain is here to validate your feelings.

Luckily, it's not only that.  At its best, The Human Stain is a book about the difficult process of self-making in the public eye.  As a young man--Coleman tells his story to Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's erstwhile stand-in--Coleman is smart, athletic, and popular, but bristles under the yoke of blackness.  He doesn't reject being black, per se, but rather the claims that blackness lays on him; the adoption of a community and an identity in which he has no choice.  Passing as white is a way of liberating himself from these claims.  In some ways, it's successful; certainly being a white man allows him more freedom to create himself, even though it costs him his relationship with his family.  But in others, it's futile; all identities are a negotiation between an individual and the world at large, and the twin scandals Coleman faces late in life show that even he, "the great pioneer of the I," can't run from that kind of negotiation. 

When The Human Stain is that novel, it's terrific.  But Roth loves getting distracted by petty details and minor characters.  We get the story of Coleman's entire life, with all its minutiae, and the life stories of several other people to boot.  Its hard to shake the impression that Roth throws up all this indiscriminate detail to create the illusion of life, as if we won't buy Coleman or any of the other characters unless they're fleshed out as fully as possible.  But this seems like the most novelistic, and the least modernist, thing about Roth's books.  Among the bewildering detail there's some pretty bad writing, too--clunky sentences and bad cliches.  Roth devotes huge swaths to Faunia's violent, Vietnam-vet ex-husband, Lester, and when they're not useless or boring, they're ludicrious.  Here's how Roth ends one of Lester's flashbacks:

The fear intense, the anger intense, no helicopter willing to land and the terrible smell of Drago's blood there in his own fucking house.  He did not know how bad it could smell.  EVERYTHING SO INTENSE AND EVERYBODY FAR FROM HOME AND ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY RAGE!

That is possibly the worst thing I have ever read.

But like I said, sometimes The Human Stain is terrific.  Coleman is magnetic, and the tortured relationship he has with his own background is compelling, rich, and infinitely more thoughtful than Roth's bad opinions about Bill Clinton or cartoonish ideas of Vietnam Veterans.

1 comment:

Chloe Pinkerton said...

1. Reading your reviews makes me feel bad about myself and my level of analysis.
2. I really liked this when I read it 10 years ago. Maybe time for a re-read?