Saturday, December 23, 2017

the last book I read

The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

Coleman Silk is an ex-professor of classics and former dean of faculty at a New England university. Despite being of retirement age (seventy-one) the "ex" bit was not entirely of his own volition; he resigned a couple of years before the book opens to avoid the fall-out from an accusation of racism following some careless (or entirely blameless, depending on your point of view) use of language during a lecture.

Various things were set in motion by these events: Coleman's wife Iris died (a death caused, in Coleman's mind at least, by the stress of the racism affair), Coleman engaged his friend, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, to help write a book repudiating the accusations, and Coleman embarked on a relationship with Faunia Farley, a woman half his age who survives by working multiple menial jobs in the local area including some cleaning and janitorial duties at the university.

Even though Coleman has no marital ties, has left the university, and therefore it's not really any of anybody else's business, the relationship ruffles some feathers in the local community. Faunia's ex-husband Lester, a Vietnam vet with a nasty case of PTSD and an associated simmering disdain for the rest of the human race, gets wind of things and is none too pleased. Delphine Roux, Coleman's ex-colleague at the university, takes it upon herself to mount a feminist crusade to rescue Faunia from the filthy patriarchal old scrote who's just out to exploit and demean her.

Coleman cools off on wanting Nathan Zuckerman to be the agent of his literary revenge and decides just to chill out and concentrate on banging Faunia; unfortunately Lester Farley isn't too keen on letting them get on with that unmolested and after a couple of highly-charged encounters at Coleman's house ups the ante somewhat by running Coleman's car off the road into a ditch and killing both of them. It's at Coleman's funeral (through a meeting with Coleman's sister) that Zuckerman makes the shocking discovery that far from being of Jewish descent, as he'd always allowed people to think, Coleman was in fact African-American, and had made the conscious decision after leaving the US Navy as a young man to cut all his real family ties and pass for white, this being the best way for a plausibly pale-skinned black man to get on in post-war America. Zuckerman decides that this would be a much better subject for a book than what Coleman had originally suggested, and decides to call it The Human Stain.

So we're in the realms of revelations of the "and that book was.....THIS ONE that you've just been reading, haha" variety, just as we were with Sweet Tooth and a few others over the lifetime of this blog (a few other examples are linked to from that Sweet Tooth review). Nathan Zuckerman is pretty clearly an authorial alter ego, a means for Roth to effectively insert himself into the story, though not as obviously as in The Plot Against America and various others which feature a central character called Philip Roth.

The central revelations about Coleman's ancestry and the general unfolding of the plot don't happen as linearly as I've described them above; there is a lot of hopping about along the story's timeline and shifting of narrative viewpoint: mostly Zuckerman, but occasionally Faunia, Delphine Roux or Lester Farley. While Faunia's inner motivations are directly relevant to the plot, a load of backstory about Dephine and a couple of interludes describing Lester's outings with his post-Vietman support group trying to re-integrate him into polite society serve a purpose which isn't ever very clear. Delphine Roux, in particular, seems to exist only as a receptacle for some disproportionate authorial hatred (of, presumably, educated and uppity women, or perhaps just women in general) in a way that's faintly disturbing. Her motivations for doing any of the things she does are entirely unconvincing, and she just seems to be a personification of some notions of "political correctness" that Roth dislikes. Indeed there seems to be a general inclination to rail against the mostly imaginary concept of "political correctness" here, from the idea that Coleman should be held entirely blameless for some intemperate - though unintentional - use of racially-charged language to a more understandable distaste for the prurience and hypocritical puritanism underlying the Clinton impeachment hearings that happen in the background to the story (which is set in 1998).

Seventysomething authors need to be wary of this sort of stuff lest it make them seem like some out-of-date old git; Roth is too clever and writes too well for that charge to stick, but there was an unpalatable undertone of "the world's gone mad" which left a slightly sour taste. A few other quibbles: while it seems that Faunia has been lying about being illiterate, she's not meant to be highly educated, and the same goes for Lester and Coleman's sister Ernestine. Nonetheless they all have lengthy expository passages which seem far too wordy and articulate, almost as if written by a professional novelist who couldn't quite bring himself convincingly down to their level.

Quibbles aside this is powerful stuff; its central themes of identity and how we choose to define ourselves to others are still highly relevant. It's a deeper and more serious book than Portnoy's Complaint, the only other Roth I'd read, though that was one of his early works, published in 1969. The Human Stain won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2001, as did Bel Canto and Independence Day. It was made into a film in 2003 featuring a few odd casting decisions: Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk (I'd pictured him as looking more like Alan Arkin) and Gary Sinise as Nathan Zuckerman (much younger than in the book where he's meant to be a rough contemporary of Coleman).

Roth is one of the holy trinity of modern American novelists, along with John Updike and Saul Bellow, both of whom have featured here before, and both of whom are dead (though in both cases the death bit came first). Roth's days on this earth are of course now numbered.

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