New Novel: The Human Stain

Philip Roth is an author I never encountered or heard much about until after college. I think back on who I was exposed to during that time, the great authors who rose to prominence between the 60s and 90s: Updike, Garcia Marquez, Le Guin, Barth, Morrison, Doctorow, Eco, Naipaul, McCarthy, DeLillo, Irving, Rushdie… but never Philip Roth. Some may argue that is more a criticism of my college experience than the quality of Roth’s oevre but I would disagree. There is no Roth novel (except perhaps Portnoy’s Complaint) that is a fundamental read. Though he still publishes nearly a novel a year, most never catch fire outside literati circles. There have been a few exceptions to that, namely American Pastoral and most recently The Plot Against America, but I would wager that an English major graduating today would not recognize the titles of most of his books.

Why does this matter? Well, take a look at the master list. Remember, this is a list of 1000 works of literature that are supposed to represent the greatest examples of the written word. This is a list made up of 25 “great books” lists. To get on the master list, a book needs to appear at least twice on those 25 source lists. On the master list, Roth earns seven spots. Seven!  Here they are:

American Pastoral
Portnoy’s Complaint
Operation Shylock
The Human Stain
Sabbath’s Theater
The Counterlife
The Plot Against America 

No other post-WWII author comes close. Not Toni Morrison, not Thomas Pynchon. Nobody. What makes Roth so impressive to so many people? 

Having now read most of those books, I would argue it is his remarkable athleticism at composition. Nobody writes sentences that are as sincere, effortless, and engaging as Philip Roth. Unlike most authors (myself included) who labor over metaphors and bits of dialogue, Roth’s chapters seem to flow from his pen through automatic writing. There is an organic nature to his storytelling. 

The positive of this is real human emotion. Roth characters are more believable, dimensional, and memorable than anything I have found in, say, a DeLillo book. The obvious negative is that the characters all sort of act the same. His heroes are overachieving male Jews (or Jew imitators) from the greater Newark area who move to the suburbs, miss the old Newark, and fret about their sex lives and families. This is not an oversimplification. The protagonist of every one of his books is a variation on that description, even sometimes played by a character named Philip Roth. 

What makes readers coming back, I suppose, is that this character is quite interesting. 

So we come now to The Human Stain. This novel is the last in a trilogy Roth wrote in the 1990s about three American men struggling with their pasts. All three novels are “profiles” of these men purportedly written by Roth’s fictional stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman. Two of these novels made the master list. One is American Pastoral, perhaps one of the top five novels of the last few decades. The other is this one, The Human Stain. The Human Stain is famous for a surprise twist that O. Henry would have cheered. Whether it works or not, we’ll have to see.  

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