The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Human Stain
by Philip Roth.
The Human Stain
by Philip Roth

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Nathan Zuckerman figured as a recurring
character in Philip Roth’s fiction for more
than a quarter century before the publication
of
The Human Stain.  By any reasonable
measure, this stand-in for the author –-
Zuckerman is a novelist who frequently
reminds of us of Mr. Roth -- would have
been ready for retirement in the year 2000.  
He is reclusive and in poor health, and hardly
the right figure to step forth as a protagonist
in an exciting work of fiction.

Zuckerman, in short, is a survivor.  He has
survived prostrate cancer –- just barely, and is now incontinent. He
has survived his second divorce.  His sex life is kaput.  His ties with
the past and his interactions with the external world, have loosened,
indeed almost totally unraveled, and the author has relocated to a
quiet New England cabin where he can pursue the solitary craft of
writing.

Nothing here prepares us for high drama.  Yet the aging writer has
one carryover from the past, a skill refined over decades that sets
this powerful tale in motion.  Zuckerman is a great observer, with
endless curiosity, and when his solitude is broken by chance
encounters with provocative individuals and events, he feeds on
them ravenously.  The details of lives are, after all, the sustenance of
any author, and Zuckerman takes an almost voyeuristic delight in
the stories he can pick up second-hand.

As with that other late great Zuckerman novel,
American Pastoral,
The Human Stain builds a rich multilayered novel from a tragic life
observed from afar.  Coleman Silk is a former dean and classics
professor at a small local college, whose world collapses after he is
accused of racism.  When he notices that two of the students signed
up for his seminar never show up for class, he mutters aloud: "Do
they exist or are they spooks?" But the missing students turn out to
be African-Americans, and the word ‘spook’ is perceived as a racial
slur. His attempts to defuse the controversy are met with hostility,
and Silk resigns in anger at what he sees are unfair accusations.

The life in retirement of this once esteemed academic is now filled
with rage.  He heightens the scandal by entering into an affair with
one of the college’s janitors, an illiterate woman much younger than
Silk.  This decision embroils him into a potentially explosive conflict
with the woman’s previous lover, a disturbed Vietnam vet. These
details are set against events of the 1990s, in particular the Bill
Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.  As in other Zuckerman novels,
Roth creates a masterful counterpoint between individual destinies
and public events.  By embedding his narrative in the trials and
tribulations of recent socio-political currents, he constructs
narratives that possess both historical resonance and pointed
contemporary relevance.

But Roth’s adds another key layer to his novel in a series of
flashbacks into Silk’s past life.  This powerful story-behind-the-
story not only stands on its own merits as a cautionary tale, but
completely changes how we perceive all of the other interlocking
parts of
The Human Stain.  The more deeply we understand Silk, the
more we perceive the painful irony – or perhaps one might call it
karma -- of his predicament.

All of the plots and sub-plots meld effortlessly together in this
masterful work.  Even the minor characters -- Vietnam vet Lester
Farley or Delphine Roux, Silk’s academic adversary -– are perfectly
realized, setting in motion their own tragedies around the orbit of
Silk’s almost predestined fall from grace.

I often find Roth hit and miss.  Some of his works strike me as
lacking sufficient drama, expending too much energy on small scale
effects. But when he writes at this level, with such control of pacing,
plot, prose and personality, he stands out as one of the finest
novelists of recent decades.  With
The Human Stain, Roth serves
notice that his best known character -- like the author himself -- has
not lost his edge with the passing years.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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More to come


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