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The Human Stain

by Philip Roth

It’s the summer of 1998 – that Clinton-Lewinsky summer – and at a small New England college another formerly respected, powerful man faces disgrace. His offence is a classroom remark, taken out of context and deemed racist. Thus, one word destroys the honourable career of Coleman Silk, dean of classics. When Philip Roth’s narrator, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, meets him, Silk is compulsively writing the chronicle of his betrayal. But Silk then sets vengeance aside in favour of a Viagra-enhanced affair with a college cleaning-woman half his age.
The Human Stain anatomizes the America that brought us Ken Starr and a thousand pundits who kept saying, “It’s all about character.” Roth seems to agree, and writes his novel as if character does indeed determine fate. In consequence, the narrative moves deliberately, but never tediously, through what’s almost a series of biographical essays. This allows Roth to confer a plausible humanity upon each actor in the tragedy, whether he’s portraying a Vietnam vet, an ambitious French-born professor living out her “Kunderian inner exile” in the U.S., or a cleaning woman who believes she should have been born a crow. At the same time, Roth shows how each character becomes one strand in the web that has caught Coleman Silk.
If your life embodies the American dream, as Silk’s does, you probably reinvented yourself at some point – which means you have secrets. Roth sees the potential for a tragic tale of downfall there, but he also sees an opening for social satire. A master of that art, Roth has a lot of fun at the expense of the “fantasy of purity” that gripped his country once there were no longer Communists under the beds. In Roth’s practiced hands, Silk’s story becomes a fable of “puritanical propriety” and its triumph over more complex things like morality, human sympathy, and fact. The result is a thoughtful entertainment that’s wise, sad, and intermittently hilarious.