The Human Stain’s Rambling

In Philip Roth’s world, so much depends on the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. No Roth novel seems complete without some obsession with New York high culture, as dictated by these expiring icons. Only perhaps John Irving, our contemporary Dickens to Roth’s Stendhal, can write using  the same half dozen tropes  in every novel and get away with it. For Roth, those tropes include Jewish persecution, sex drive, Newark and environs, and of course the curious push and pull of Manhattan and its cognoscenti.

The Human Stain involves a number of characters, who though they live within the geography of the Boston Globe, spend much time reading and considering the Times and the New York Review of Books. It is worth then considering the review of this novel in those publications. The Times, for example, eventually included The Human Stain on a long list for the most influential novels of the last quarter of the 20th century. High praise, and praise the novel doesn’t deserve. It is gorgeously written, for sure, and written in a way that only Roth can do, with many brilliant flashes of observation. But it has a lot of flaws. One big example, as I think I’ve said before, is that Roth is not very good at writing women. He treats them all as nymphomaniac harpies whose ambitions don’t rise much above bedding and tormenting their men. Other characters get a similar weak showing. Roth, I feel, has always struggled to understand characters of backgrounds differing from his own. It shows here in his attempts to portray Christian characters. Delphine Roux and Lester Farley are both cast in a bitter, pessimistic light, a point noted in the NYT review. Also, the book delivers small mountains of text on these same inconsequential secondaries. We gain nothing much from

delving into their lives, and we lose a lot of protagonist momentum. Finally, Roth’s exuberant style gets tiring after a few hundred pages. He repeats phrases to catch the natural cadence of speech, and also to emphasize his points, but he does it so often the reader is tempted to  jump across sentences to find the next bit of dialogue that will propel the action forward.

Some examples of this last problem from pages 20 and 21:

after rereading two years’ work–even one year’s work, merely a half a year’s work…

“Walking away from all this, cheerfully saying, ‘It’s defeated me,’ walking away from all this work, from all this loathing.”

This was a new Coleman. Or perhaps an old Coleman, the oldest adult Coleman there was.

“All I had to do was go down into the subway… Go down into the subway and come up with a girl.”

And that is just within a few paragraphs. Multiply those by 350 to appreciate the sheer number of repeated phrases in this book. But this is an intentional stylistic technique that Roth uses, and he is a good writer so I can forgive the peccadillo of abusing a formula.

The second secret is Coleman’s affair with a allegedly illiterate cleaning woman less than half his age. Are there some interesting ideas to explore regarding Coleman’s race and this relationship? Maybe, maybe not. The issue of him being Jewish, being black, being anything at all is given short shrift. Even the afBut let’s consider the content itself. The novel curiously divides itself into describing two secrets about the hero Coleman Silk, but these two secrets never meet, and since they never meet there is little point to either one of them being written about in the first place. First there is the secret of the hero’s racial background. Coleman Silk is a light-skinned black, but has pretended to be a white Jew for all his adult life. Great opportunity for shocking revelations and the like. But no. This plot line is presented, fleshed out in background, and then set down to rest during the real action of the novel. It almost could belong to a completely separate book. The second secret is Coleman’s affair with a allegedly illiterate cleaning woman less than half his age. Are there some interesting ideas to explore regarding Coleman’s race and this relationship? Maybe, maybe not. The issue of him being Jewish, being black, being anything at all is given short shrift. Even the affair itself is dramatically neglected. Coleman’s relationship with Faunia Farley sets up all sorts of interesting triangles. The couple vs Faunia’s shell shocked vet ex-husband. The couple vs the academic establishment around which Coleman and Faunia live. And the couple vs Coleman’s incredulous children. Each of these conflicts gets an airing, but none germinate and progress toward anything. Coleman and Faunia, the illicit lovers, die unceremoniously in a car crash brought on by a spontaneous game of chicken. The man who is destined to kill them does so, but the murder, when it comes, is underwhelming. Philip Roth prefers realism over theatrics, but the lost potential of all these budding conflicts makes me, as a reader, wonder, Why bring any of them up in the first place? It is the narrative equivalent of  Hamlet actually committing suicide at the start of Act III.

In the end, I regret not getting to spend more time with Coleman. The turmoil of a man living a life-long lie doesn’t here get the exposure the idea deserves. It’s a brilliant narrative twist that is muddled and bludgeoned by too many other ideas and lesser characters competing for space in this mess of a work of art.

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