13th book of 2004 finished!

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Finally finished The Human Stain last night, sitting out on the porch with a Mike's hard lemonade in hand. Think the alcohol helped?

This is the first Philip Roth book I've ever read, so I probably should not judge him on one book alone. At the moment I'm still up in the air on whether I liked the book or not. I think I feel about Roth as an author the same way I feel about Quentin Tarantino as a director. Talent, talent, talent, talent. But the subject matter--uuuggghh. If that talent were put in the service of the good, the true, and the beautiful-WOW! Put in service of the low and vulgar, YICK.

I don't think The Human Stain at its bottom line story level is vulgar, or uninteresting or not worthy of examination. It is just that Roth has heaped on far more nastiness than was necessary to make his point. It's not that he uses Clinton-Lewinsky as part of his story--it is his need to write about it in the most "trying to be shocking", vulgar way. I know I'm not saying this right. I hope you get the drift.

Roth throws in info about characters that is just nasty--and that is not integral to the plot or understanding the character. An example is the writer who is the "voice" of the novel--Nathan Zuckerman. I understand explaining his prostate cancer--his reason for being where he was to "meet" Coleman Silk (the protagonist of the book). But did we really have to have the 3 pages of the discussion of his incontinence and the wet pad???? Nope. I get that we needed to know he was impotent--and therefore drawn to the (Viagra driven) potency of Coleman. But the other was put in there simply as a "Boy, I bet this'll gross out the yahoos" filip.

But Roth IS a powerful writer, and the book DOES have a lot to say about political correctness, the drive for individual freedom and its costs, the relationships between men and women, and what it means to be part of a family (or race). Just how independent CAN we make ourselves, and at what cost?

To understand the excerpts, you have to understand that Coleman Silk, the protagonist, was a "get it done" dean of a small college, who literally turned the institution around. He is a revered classics professor. He was married for 40 years to a Jewish woman. He is black, but passing as white--and had been for his whole career. He was drummed out of the college by a false charge of racism--by asking if some missing students were "real or are they spooks", meaning, of course, ghosts. Unfortunately for him, the students in question were black, and use his words as an opportunity to get back at the university. Silk's long career at the college is ruined. He spirals into rage, into an affair with a MUCH younger woman who is a janitor at the college, and finally dies in a car accident.

Roth tries to draw a strong connection between Silk's favorite Greek tragedy--The Iliad and Silk's life. "Let's tell about the anger of Achilles, and the tragedy that led from it." Ditto Silk's life.....

Roth is no fan of political correctness. Here's something on Silk's railroading at the college:

People in Athena know perfectly well that this is not the case and yet, as in the spooks incident, they willingly act as if they don't. Simply to make the accusation is to prove it. To hear the allegation is to believe it. No motive for the perpetrator is necessary, no logic or rationale is required. Only a label is required. The label is the motive. The label is the evidence. The label is the logic. Why did Coleman Silk do this? Because he is an x, because he a y, because he is both.....

That's good stuff. And it's hilarious that the college, named after Athena, is the place where the stupidity happens.

Coleman Silk had four children, three whom he got along with, one with whom he fought. It is this fourth child that suffers most at Coleman's funeral:

Mark Silk apparently had imagined that he was going to have his father around to hate forever. To hate and hate and hate and hate, and then perhaps, in his own good time, after the scenes of accusation had reached their crescendo and he had flogged Coleman to within an inch of his life with his knot of filial grievance, to forgive. He thought Coleman was going to stay here till the whole play could be performed, as though he and Coleman had been set down not in life but on the southern hillside of the Athenian acropolis, in an outdoor theater sacred to Dionysus, where, before the eyes of ten thousand spectators, the dramatic unities were once rigorously observed and the great cathartic cycle was enacted annually. The human desire for a beginning, a middle, and an end--and an end appropriate in magnitude to that beginning and middle--is realized nowhere so thoroughly as in the plays that Coleman taught at Athena College. But outside the classical tragedy of the fifth century B.C., the expectation of completion, let alone of a just and perfect consummation, is a foolish illusion for an adult to hold.

Anyway, it'll take me some time to think through this one. I think I will definitely read something else Roth has written, just to form a more complete judgement.


I haven't read anything else by Roth either so now I'm curious to see if "The Human Stain" is representative. If you read more of him let me know. Eve Tushnet's friend, the blogger at "the Rat" makes suggestions here.

Maybe this should be the next book we all read: The Empty Cradle.



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This page contains a single entry by MamaT published on April 28, 2004 7:10 AM.

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