The Human Stain review

1998 and political correctness and moral indignation run wild across the American conscience as the president is impeached for, undeniably, having sexual relations with that woman. Soaking in the self-righteous atmosphere, Philip Roth ties the nation’s concerns to a smaller story about a college professor who is caught up in a row about racism. The Human Stain (2000) completes Roth’s loose American trilogy and finds Nathan Zuckerman, the now impotent and incontinent writer, narrating for Roth once more. Settling into a new town, Zuckerman is befriended by Coleman Silk. Professor of Classics at Athena College, Coleman is at the inglorious end of an illustrious career, which is brought abruptly to a conclusion following an allegation of racism made against the aging professor.

Calling the register in one of the final seminars of the semester, Coleman enquires of two students who have yet to attend class that year and wonders about the spectral absence of these ‘spooks’. When this phraseology is relayed to the two absent students, who happen to be African American, a minor race row ensues over the use of the archaic racial term. The staff of Athena College turn against their colleague and even those closest to Coleman refuse to break ranks on such a sensitive subject. Chief among the voices who call for Coleman’s head is Delphine Roux, a young academic from France who appears to be able to reel off every literary theory from structuralism to post-colonial criticism. The mob get their way and Coleman resigns, even as the swell of opinion seems to be dissipating.

Coleman loses more than his career over the small-town scandal. While the protracted case rumbles around the corridors of power at Athena College, Coleman’s wife passes away. Sure that the stress of the situation has caused her demise, Coleman becomes a man with an axe to grind. Taking a lover half his age – the uneducated Faunia Farley, a janitor at the College – and brooding on his misfortunes, the slighted professor sets out to write his story. Yet he finds he is too close to events to put them down in coherent order and so he asks his new friend Nathan Zuckerman to use his writerly skills to propound the injustice on his behalf.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth book cover
Taking on the project, Zuckerman observes as Coleman’s relationship with Faunia unfolds and the now retired professor is stalked by his new lover’s ex-husband. Lester Farley is an ex-Vietnam veteran with his own axe to grind against society and watching his ex-wife, who left their children to die in a domestic accident while she cuckolded him with a previous lover, take this older Jewish professor into her bed sends Les into a rage. It is just another tension in Coleman’s long life of fractious relationships. As Zuckerman looks back over his subject’s life, he discovers more than a few secrets, but one will trump them all; a secret that not even Coleman’s children are aware of. The aging professor, drenched in the life of a secular Jewish intellectual, it transpires, was born into an African-American family. Ambitious and eager to set his own path in the world, the young Coleman decided to put his light skin to use after one setback too many, and exchanged membership of one persecuted group for that of another: from young black man to liberal Jew. It is a revelation that, rightly or wrongly, shifts perceptions about the story’s subject and Roth weaves the history of this life lived as a singularity with those of the book’s other main players as well as the American conscience of 1998.

Roth has not been afraid to tackle the African-American experience of living in a society that is implicitly and explicitly hostile to one’s existence, and coupling this with the Jewish experience. The Human Stain couples the two groups more closely than in any of his previous works, however. The irony is that as Coleman’s story unfolds, the more Roth appears to question the notion of Race, on a genetic level, as any way to demarcate human experience. Rather, he shows how identity is chosen – literally in this case – but all too often by the society in which one lives and then imposed upon the individual. For what, truly, is the difference in skin pigmentation when compared to the far greater complexity of an individual? This is a defining problem for Coleman – the need to exist as a singularity, not to have identity thrust upon him but to develop his own response to the Sophoclean question of exactly who he is. His choice to impose his own will upon his identity may seem somehow ironic in that he moves from one minority group to another, but it is a defiant autonomy that causes him to do this. In fact, it is the reader who becomes the dupe when they focus too heavily on this ‘passing’ from one racial group to another, as though the boundary crossed is anything but a socially constructed illusion and identity much more than performance. That is not to say that experience is not defined by the groups of which one is a member, but simply that the very existence of these groups is anathema to the human spirit.

A very great deal of the critical work on The Human Stain seems to revolve around the issue of passing from one race to another – interesting of itself, if a sad necessity for some – but this discussion seems to take precedence over any conception of Coleman as an individual who seeks autonomy over his own life, even if to do so means to bifurcate his own and, by extension, his cultural history. Roth is very good here at turning the reader’s own response to the revelation of Coleman’s lineage back on itself, forcing a self-reflection that can be troubling. It is natural to see Zuckerman’s discovery of Coleman’s race as a trump card in the ‘spooks’ debacle – after all, a black man can surely be no more racist against his own race than a Jewish man (perhaps we should say, author) could be an anti-Semite – but this exposes the absurdity of Political Correctness and much modern thought on Race and Identity.

This muddled thinking is linked with the outing of President Clinton as an adulterous hypocrite by the American people, caught up in their Puritanical sense of moral justice to the point that their humanity is subordinated. As Roth suggests, there should be a banner draped across the White House that proclaims ‘A Human Being Lives Here’. This sense of one’s identity, one’s essence, being overshadowed by easy-to-draw conclusions based on paltry information is very important to understanding how many of the characters work: Faunia is more than the illiterate sex object she appears to be; Les Farley, who suffers the ‘war sickness’ of Odysseus, must be more than the stereotypical Vietnam vet – a trope that has passed into stereotype in modern consciousness; and Delphine Roux, who reads the world like a textbook and is so saturated in theory that she forgets to see beyond to a person’s essence, is herself a stereotype – the French second-wave feminist academic. Coleman recognises and cherishes the rich interior that he hides from the world, and so too Roth, who cautions against understanding people through only what is visible and what archetypes one has to draw on. He includes the world of fiction in this critique by wrapping up in Coleman at least three recognisable tropes from literature: the wily trickster, the tragic mulatto, and the schelemiel. Characters, just as humans, must be understood by far more than what appears on the surface.

That Roth is able to pull together the stories of Faunia, Les, and Delphine – all satellites to Coleman’s story – and make each work as an extension of the theme of identity which he explores through Coleman’s passing is testament to his skill as a writer. The drawing together of different lives, each of which has something to add to the discussion about the eternal concerns of identity and the contemporary atmosphere of America is very well done. Roth treads a fine line between tipping into stereotype himself with all of his characters but the humanity and knowing irony present throughout the text help him avoid such a charge. Occasionally the characters do become mouth pieces for a particular comment Roth wants to make and temporarily lose the realism of their own voice but this is but a small criticism.

Where he might be a little more culpable is in his indulgence of having the ageing professor seduce a woman half his age and carry out a nourishing and active sexual relationship with her. The emergence of Viagra certainly marks 1998 as a good year for the older man but there are times when Faunia slips into a kind of fantasy. The idea that young academic Delphine Roux may also be secretly harbouring a desire for Coleman only doubles the improbability and leaves one slightly disappointed that there is no major female in the novel equal to Coleman (his wife having died before the narrative’s first lines and his sister never sharing the page with her estranged brother). But perhaps this is all in line with the times: when the president is seducing young interns, what red-blooded man should choose not to follow and indulge in a little wish-fulfilment, Coleman or Roth? After all, does it not say something about the male psyche that youth and virility trumps all else in a partner so often?

This sense of base sexual desires overriding, or at least co-mingling, with what are perceived as more weighty concerns is another of the book’s real achievements. Early on it is noted that since he became impotent, Zuckerman has written more prolifically and Coleman, in the early throes of his passion for Faunia, loses all ability to turn into prose the story that he wishes to tell. Aside from this, sex is regularly used as a reason to attack others: Clinton is persecuted for having an affair with Monica Lewinsky, Coleman is gossiped about for taking Faunia as a lover and is stalked by Les for the same reason. In fact, there is an irony that hysteria over sexual proclivities and political correctness in 1998 comes from a similar place that sustained McCarthyism for so long in America and Coleman, having sidestepped one form of this human thrill at condemning others and watching their downfall, falls fowl of the other.

The pleasure humans find in interfering with and condemning others’ lives may be one of the flaws to which the ‘human stain’ of the title refers. It is undoubtedly wider than this however and, aside from the crude, literal allusion to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, describes the more general sense that humans must leave their trail, no matter how hard they may try to erase it:

"...we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen - there's no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It's in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark."

All of this is explored in Roth’s brilliant prose, which rarely drops below excellent, but one interesting side note to the recounting of the story is the role that Nathan Zuckerman plays. As a narrator, he sits outside of the story but also within it, seeming to favour Coleman’s version of events but also writing with a level of reliability. However, when considered carefully it becomes clear that Zuckerman’s narrative goes beyond the bounds of what is knowable for the narrator and includes details that simply would not have been available to him (events at which he was not present and could not have been included in Coleman’s manuscript, the inner monologue of characters that would not have been recorded anywhere) – something which should highlight the way in which all stories are embellished and narrativised by their authors. Does this significantly affect how The Human Stain should be read? I’m not so sure, but it is certainly worth being aware that in a narrative that is in large parts about controlling one’s own story and appreciating the unknowable as well as the precision of language and the fallibility of interpretation, the narrator holds ultimate control over what is known and cannot always be trusted to relay things just as they are.

The Human Stain is a book complex enough to be lastingly satisfying and has the sense of capturing a particular time in American history while also satirising small town college life and political correctness, approaching race and identity, and the male psyche to name but a few major themes. It points back to the classical world while being entirely submerged in its present and certainly belongs near the top of Roth’s canon to date. This will be a book that has enduring value, one that is referred to as a marker of the very late twentieth century in America, and one that approached the way language is and was used and abused in the period.