In an insightful new novel by the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author of I Married a Communist, a college professor with a sexual indiscretion in his past is hounded from his job by academic enemies who label him a racist.
The flashbacks to Silk's youth in New Jersey become just as important as his turbulent-forced retirement when he reveals a secret that he has been hiding his entire adult life and Silk's contradictions power a great Philip Roth novel, but he's not the only character who packs a punch. Faunia, brutally abused by her Vietnam vet husband, scarred by the death of her kids, is one of Roth's best female characters ever. The self-serving Delphine Roux is intriguingly (and convincingly) nutty, and any number of minor characters pop in, mouth off and vanish, leaving a vivid sense of human passion and perversity behind. You might call it a stain. --Tim Appelo
The Human Stain is the story of Coleman Silk, a retired college professor from Athena College. Coleman retired from his position in the midst of a scandal. He was accused of making a racist remark in one of his classes towards two students. The accusation is patently untrue but Coleman was not the most popular man on campus and things began to steamroll out of control until he left the school. The joke inherent in this accusation is that while Coleman may look like a 71 year old white man, he is actually a black man. Coleman has spent his professional (and private) life denying who (and what) he is. In case this concept sounds too fantastic (a black man who looks white trying to hide the fact that he is black), there is a real life corollary in Anatole Broyard, a New York Times book critic.
This is the Coleman that we are first introduced to. He is in a sexual (and not much more) relationship with 34 year old Faunia Farley. She is illiterate and works as a cleaning lady at Athena College. This too, is a scandal waiting to happen.Read more ›
Despite the rather grandiose ambition of the book (to make a once-and-for-all comment on the whole topic of political correctness in academia), the book is immensely readable and as the story gathers pace, the reader is drawn into a narrative as thrilling and suspenseful as any crime novel (and in any case there are plenty of crimes in here anyway!). The characters are complex and the situations they find themselves in unusual. Huge conflicts emerge behind their differing approaches to life and the book is in some ways like a glorified soap opera with all the human themes one would find in any television drama.
In writing a review of this book, you become aware of quite how rich this novel is. It would be an excellent book for a reading group, or a more academic programme and the topics for discussion which arise from it would be endless. The book tells complex stories about the Vietnam experience, Bill Clinton's meanderings through the Lewinsky story, racism and ethnicity, human ageing, and the irresisitlble pull of romance and sex. Primarily, the book is about the human condition (the "human stain" of the title) and to use a cliché, man's search for meaning. But it can also be read as a powerful human drama, for Roth's fictional narrative is as valid on its own terms as the lessons he seeks to draw from it.
This is a rich and compelling read, highly recommended to anyone who expects their chosen books to make them think about their own lives and the lives of those around them.
Roth becomes more ambitious with every book and The Human Stain again sees him tackling through a piquant life story The State of the Nation. Here he is taking on the tyranny of political correctness and of the persecuting spirit which is said to be ruling America at the time of the Monica Lewinsky trial.
Some of Roth's hits at the intellectual decline of American universities or the absurdities of French theory are shrewd. But they are also often disconnected from the vital life of the novel and read more like impassioned (and not always well thought through) journalistic tirades.
'Write what you know' is a saying that Roth always seems to have respected in his earlier work, with its accounts of the life of the novelist and the pains and pleasures of an American Jewish upbringing. But it is one he seems to depart from here. His central character Coleman Silk is marvellously alive, but many of the supporting figures- like the neurotic Derrida spouting academic or the mad Vietnam veteran- feel like a clever assemblage of cliches rather than authentic creations.
For me at least if Roth is becoming ever more concerned with 'issues'- wrestling with Black History month or the Monica Lewinsky trial- then the cost is a slackening delight in language. The monologues here lack some of the high octane inventiveness of previous works and Roth's bent for exaggeration looks less like surrealism or fantasy than lack of attention to the facts.Read more ›
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