The Human Stain.
Philip Roth's latest novel is set mainly in 1998, the year of Bill Clinton's impeachment, and Bill's sexual peccadilloes and deceit are there to act as a kind of counterpoint to the activities of Coleman Silk, the central character of the book. Roth's book is not written in pretty prose -- that would perhaps defeat the object of the novel. Yet he writes in a pungent, prodigious, and powerful style that is full of punch and made lively with imagination. The opening sentence of the book illustrates this point well -- in the words of Nathan Zuckerman, author (well known from previous Roth novels as Philip Roth's "alter ego"):
It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk -- who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty -- confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.
One notes immediately the parallel to Bill Clinton's affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter. Moving from here, Roth rapidly establishes Coleman Silk as a charismatic, intriguing character, well-suited to be the central focus of this historical novel of the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. We are told in passing in the opening chapter that Silk is Jewish, although his Jewish identity is not central to his life from either a religious or a cultural perspective.
What is central to Silk's life is that after many years as a powerful, influential figure at Athena College, he has suffered -- from an innocent but unfortunate use of language -- such scandal and humiliation that he felt obliged to resign from the college, and he left under the cloud of being a "racist professor." It was this scandal and humiliation, Silk tells Zuckerman, that actually had such an effect on Silk's wife Iris, that she died from the impact. It is noteworthy that at no point does Silk attribute his fall to antisemitism.
Coleman has tried to write a self-vindication, but he's failed, so he entreats the established writer, Nathan Zuckerman, to write the book. This he does. The writer indeed becomes obsessed with Coleman Silk, as the continuation of the novel shows.
We find in the second section of the novel -- which is divided into only five "chapters," each the equivalent of a novella -- to our surprise, that Coleman Silk is not Jewish at all, and that even the assumption that prevails in the first section, that Silk is white, is not true. Actually, Coleman is black, but so light-skinned that that he can pass himself as white. The second section slides into an extended flashback to Silk's boyhood and young manhood. At tint, Silk does not see race as an issue in his life, because the young Silk leads a protected life; yet the moment comes at last:
But because somebody, belatedly, had got around to calling Coleman a nigger to his face, he finally recognized the enormous barrier against the great American menace that his father had been for him.
From this it may be seen that the American brand of racism is one of the major themes running through the novel. By presenting Coleman Silk as a man who spent most of his adult life lying about his race -- at the cost of cutting himself off from his mother, sister, and brother -- Roth may be running something of the same risk that William Styron ran in writing The Confessions of Nat Turner. The latter novel outraged many blacks because a white man put himself in the head of a black, historical figure. The risk for Roth may be less, however, since Coleman Silk is not a figure from black history. So far, at least, the book has not aroused organized African-American ire.
Zuckerman only penetrates Silk's secret after Silk's death, when he meets Coleman's sister Ernestine, who is unmistakably black. Nathan Zuckerman professes amazement at the thoroughness of Silk's living a lie. Never did Silk reveal his race, neither to his wife, Iris, nor to his four children, all of whom were born white. Yet in section two of the novel, we understand Silk's reasoning -- namely what his father endured at the hands of whites simply because of his race.
Nathan Zuckerman's obsession with Coleman Silk takes Nathan to the point where even after Silk's death in a car wreck (along with the death of Faunia Farley, the cleaning woman Silk is sleeping with), Nathan Zuckerman takes over the role of the main character, pursuing every possible angle to solve the mystery of Coleman Silk.
It is a dangerous thing to wantonly kill off one's main characters, the chief source of the book's interest. George Eliot does it once to put an end to the story; Philip Roth does not bring the novel to a speedy conclusion. Roth manages to keep us interested through the funerals of Farley and Silk, but Roth's Zuckerman plows on still further; the book's ending, for all of Roth's ingenuity, is one protracted anticlimax. Yet despite the book's disappointing finish, the main trunk of the novel is such as to establish the book as another important literary achievement (Roth's last four novels have all carried off major literary awards, including the Pulitzer).
Silk is not the only enigmatic figure in the book. Faunia Farley, who works as a milkmaid, college custodian, and post office cleaner, has time to have a liaison with a man twice her age. For most of the novel, she appears as an illiterate and hence someone who could have little in common with a classics professor. Sexually abused as a child, Faunia Farley has lived the life of someone who never has a stroke of good luck. Yet although it isn't clear what draws Faunia Farley to the arms of 71-year-old Coleman Silk, what matters is that she is drawn to him. In a further complication of what is a complicated plot, Faunia Farley must live in fear of her unpredictable ex-husband, Les Farley.
Les embodies other major themes of the novel: the Vietnam War as viewed by a draftee (Les therefore hates Clinton, the "draft-dodger"), who fought desperately in the jungles of Vietnam and who can't adjust to civilian life because of "PTSD" -- post-traumatic stress disorder. Zuckerman believes that Les Farley is responsible for the deaths of Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley. The writer thinks that Les ran Silk off the road, although everyone else thinks that Silk ran off the road because he was having oral sex with Faunia. The reader is left with no hard evidence to back up Zuckerman's belief, and the novel ends with an extended conversation between Nathan Zuckerman and Les Farley. Their manner of meeting is highly contrived, and nothing in their conversation convicts Les Farley of the murder of Silk and Faunia. But we are left knowing all there is to know about ice fishing in a New England pond. Hence the inclusive, anticlimactic ending.
Another character who interests Zuckerman is Delphine Roux. She is Coleman's nemesis at Athena College, the woman who succeeds him as dean, and the woman who helps drive Silk to resign his post at the college that owes him so much. She even pursues Silk by sending him an anonymous letter accusing him of sexually exploiting a woman half his age. Moreover, she says, it's common knowledge that he's doing so. Yet Delphine Roux is so sloppy that Coleman Silk is able to prove that she wrote the letter. In an extended section, in which Delphine Roux gives her own point of view, we learn that, in some ways, Roux is very like Silk himself. She has cut herself off from her French homeland to come to Yale and then to Athena College (Silk actually hires her). Yet for all of her academic accomplishments, Roux finds herself isolated and longing for a mate. Overall, Roth paints a grim but realistic vision of life in the academy, where one wrong move can cost you. Roux does make a wrong move, but she successfully shifts the onus once more onto the innocent shoulders of Coleman Silk.
Another theme of Roth's is friendship. The writer Nathan Zuckerman has been a recluse for five years, but Coleman Silk fascinates him, and Zuckerman must consider the idea of breaking out of his seclusion. Zuckerman does, only to have Silk distance himself from him -- but that, too, doesn't end Zuckerman's fascination with Silk.
By the time of Coleman Silk's untoward death, he has lost touch with all his four children. The ex-professor doesn't know why his daughter Lisa, on whom he has come to rely, is so cold to him when he telephones her. He can't understand why when he calls her back she refuses to speak to him at all. He can only speculate that she has heard of Faunia Farley and that she disapproves. One son, Mark, has rebelled against his father from childhood. Mark loves to hate his father. He has even become an Orthodox Jew -- the complete antithesis of his father, the sham assimilated Jew. Nevertheless, the estranged Mark comes to the funeral, and in a uniquely touching Jewish moment in the book, says Kaddish over his father. Roth even transliterates the first two words of the Aramaic prayer for the dead.
However, the Jewish motif is quite muted in this book. Roth is more interested in exploring other facets of American society. As stated, Coleman's wife, Iris, dies at the time of the academic brouhaha that sinks Coleman Silk's dignity. Iris was the daughter of two Jewish "benighted individualists" who imbued her with only the scantiest idea of what it means to be Jewish. When Coleman meets Iris, he tells her that he is a Jew. Why he does this isn't clear, unless this is his way of fortifying his lie about his race. It certainly doesn't seem like a necessary lie to please Iris. It is on the basis of these lies that Coleman Silk plans to lead his life. It's the break with his mother that is so poignant. She so deserves his love and support in her old age. She offers to stay in his life as a cleaning maid and thus meet her grandchildren, but the son refuses even this compromise. It's to Roth's credit that we don't simply dismiss Coleman Silk as a villain. We see with Silk's eyes even the affair with the illiterate cleaning woman Faunia Farley, not with the eyes of Silk's enemy, Delphine Roux -- this despite the circumstance that in Roth's account of Delphine Roux, Roth gives us Roux's point of view on the matter. Yet the reader is not moved to adopt it.
After Roth wantonly ends the lives of Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley, he presents us with two funerals. The first funeral is that of Faunia Farley, and Roth invests it with all the pathos he can. The picture of Coleman Silk's lover that emerges is clearer in some ways than Roth's depiction of her in life.
In the second funeral, which occurs the day after Faunia Farley's funeral, Roth presents us with a surprise. Incidentally, nothing about the funeral marks it as a Jewish one, despite the fact that son Mark is present (but he was obviously not in charge of the funeral arrangements). Anyway, the sole eulogist at the funeral is a black colleague from Athena College, who cries mea culpa -- he did not rise to Silk's defense when they accused Silk of racism -- and exculpates the censored academic from the grave.
When we disentangle ourselves from the novel's plot, we see that Roth is out to indict American society from a variety of angles. Academia, a microcosm of American mores, is seen as corrupt. Racism scares young Coleman so much that he's willing to live a lie at a high cost to himself and to his family. Speaking of the Clinton impeachment, Roth says, "... if you haven't lived through 1998, you don't know what sanctimony is." And the shadow of America's involvement in Vietnam still hovers over the land.
The title, "the human stain," appears on the lips of the person you would least expect it, Faunia Farley. Roth is quick to explicate: "... we leave a stain, we leave our imprint, impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen -- there's no other way to be here." Is this merely a secularized version of the basic Christian doctrine of "original sin"? Or is Roth just saying that no human life is without blemish? It doesn't much matter which you pick, but in this novel Roth is interested in human nature in all its variety. As the title indicates, however, he is especially interested in pursuing the darker side of human nature, that part of us that we would like to keep concealed, though it leaves an indelible stain.
PHILIP STERN is a freelance writer whose range embraces fiction as well as ancient and modern subjects.