The Human Stain (2000) by Philip Roth
I seem to come back to Roth every few years. I've read and taught Goodbye, Columbus, and I've read The Plot Against America, but that was a while ago. And it's always the same- I start a Roth book thinking "hmmm...meh? Eh?" and by the end I'm raving about Roth's awesomeness.
Well, The Human Stain was no different. Here Roth explores what it means to "create" your own identity, choosing the persona that you present to the world, in order to live the life you want. Weaving together the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and impeachment and the scandal that brings down the novel's protagonist, Coleman Silk, Roth invites us to think about history, race, identity, and America's penchant for witch-hunts and denunciations on a grand scale.
At times, though, I wondered why Roth would plunge us into one or another character's mind, when the focus of the novel was meant to be Coleman Silk and the narrator's attempt to understand what led to his tragic fall. Why did we need the detours into Coleman's mistress's thoughts, or those of her violent ex-husband? Or even the tormented former colleague Delphine Roux? Are they meant to suggest the broad dimensions of Roth's subject(s)? It seems that Roth was trying to take on so much in this book, one that doesn't exceed 400 pages- too much to fit into just one narrative. Racial passing, domestic abuse, Vietnam, PTSD, familial dysfunction, American vs European culture- this book could easily have been twice as long. And Coleman Silk's narrative could have taken up the entire book, instead of just the majority of it.
But perhaps Roth is showing us that we cannot possibly understand an individual and his/her choices without understanding those people who surround him/her. Despite Coleman's and our best efforts, neither he nor we can create ourselves out of nothing. We come from families that shape us and interact with more people who shape us, no matter how aloof we may try to be. Perhaps Roth is asking us to think about connections and communities, and thus cultivate a little more empathy for our fellow human beings.