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Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Human Stain (2000) by Philip Roth

Book Review
The Human Stain (2000)
 by Philip Roth

    The most amazing aspect of Philip Roth's career, aside from the fact of his never winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, is his late period productivity.  Within the first edition of the 1001 Books list, he is represented by Portnoy's Complaint (1969), his breakthrough.  From 1972 the editors decided to include The Breast.  Then, bam, it's the 1990's, and Roth has Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath's Theatre (1995), American Pastoral (1997), this book and The Plot Against America (2004).  He lost four of those titles in the first revision.  It makes sense in that almost every author who is represented by four or more titles in the first list loses half of those en route to the second, no doubt to allow more diverse voices into the canon making exercise.  Replacing four Philip Roth novels between editions makes sense, the first list represents a kind of "before," and then subsequent revisions represent reactions to that first list.

  The Human Stain, along Portnoy's Complaint are his two books that are considered "core" i.e. never removed, titles from the whole run of 1001 Books revisions.   That would make The Human Stain Roth's best book, since Portnoy's Complaint is his first.  "Best and First" might be a maxim for would-be canon creators seeking to eliminate multiple works from the same creator.   The Human Stain is a "Nathan Zuckerman" novel, as is American Pastoral.  Nathan Zuckerman is the main narrator in this series of Roth books, a Roth-esque- though not actually "Philip Roth"- that's a different set of Philip Roth novels, represented in the first edition of the 1001 Books list with Operation Shylock.

  Zuckerman, in both The Human Stain and American Pastoral is a succesful writer living in semi-retirement in rural New York, in the vicinity of a small liberal arts college. He is single, no children, impotent and incontinent as the result of prostate cancer surgery.   In the Nathan Zuckerman novel he relates the stories of people he encounters.  In The Human Stain that person is Coleman Silk, the long-time Professor and Dean of nearby Athena College, recently retired in the aftermath of a "only in the 90's" struggle over Silk's use of the word "spook" to describe two perpetually absent African American students.

  His disgrace is followed shortly by the death of his much beloved wife.  Silk takes up with a local woman, an illiterate former run away who works at his former school as a janitor.  This relationship causes an uproar in the small community.  Silk, meanwhile is concealing a life time secret, and one known to any reader who knows anything of this book- he is black, born black, and has lived his life as a white man.

 More apparent in The Human Strain than in American Pastoral is the extraordinarily sophisticated use of Nathan Zuckerman as both a major character, narrator and WRITER of the text presented to the reader.  This last bit allows the insertion of entire chapters written from the perspective of characters besides Zuckerman- giving The Human Stain incredible depth, while also maintaining the strong narrative voice of Zuckerman himself.   Thus, Silk's secret- that he is African-American passing for white, is revealed first in a chapter from the final book written by Zuckerman about the events of The Human Stain- written from the perspective of Silk itself.  Later, close to the end of the book, Zuckerman the character hears from Silk's sister the narrative that allows him to write the earlier portion of the book from the perspective of Silk himself.

  The Human Stain also seems to be a kind of commentary on the career of Roth himself, by Roth, through Zuckerman.  It's hard not to compare the kind of politically correct insanity that results in a professor being persecuted for using the term "spook" in class seems linked to the the failure of the Nobel Prize committee to recognize Roth's achievement.

 Or, you know, maybe not. I'm sure Roth himself would laugh at that last observation.


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