Roth’s “The Human Stain”

A novel about a college professor’s identity set in a small Berkshires community in 1998, the year of Monica Lewinsky and the advent of Viagra. That’s how Amy Hungerford opens her discussion of the book in her Yale lecture series on YouTube.  Then the details are enumerated, and she proceeds to make her academic case based on the data, which is the novel itself. It’s her enthusiasm and insight that led me to this book, and to re-visit others she has lectured about (Franny and Zooey, Lolita, Blood Meridian).

This is the first Roth I’ve read in years, and the first one I’ve read that has narrator/author Nathan Zuckerman. I liked Nate right off. I knew I was getting an honest narrator when he admitted to something as private as his own prostate problems and urinary leakage, which manifests in the scene where he dances with Coleman Silk.  His accounts are reliable and without hysteria. My concern was that Nate’s “I” voice vanished early and was gone for almost two hundred pages. There were long, dense sections in third person describing Silk’s college days and romances. Eventually this is made clear near the end: all of the back stories were reported to Nate by a third party. And Zuckerman confirms that this indeed is “the book” Silk asked him to write. Still, and it’s a testament to how well Nate is drawn, I missed him during all those pages.

This is a heavyweight champion writer of the world novel. It’s literature of the highest order. While the topics are contemporary, the storytelling is old-style. We are told and we are give rationales and nuances and then told again. Not once did I yearn for the modern template of action and dialog and limited exposition. In fact, it made the writers workshop commandment “show don’t tell” look sort of superficial and anemic.

The wise character Ernestine makes a brief appearance and bemoans modern people’s lack of patience and resolve, a situation in which quality and substance are lost in the name of expedience. Sounds like prose writing too, in a way.  She says this much better than me and in shorter space. We know that sort of syndrome from what we’ve been “shown” in the story. But there’s nothing wrong – in fact it’s fortifying – when she “tells” us.

In addition to being about desire and identity, the story is filled with choices. The last chapter demonstrates that. There is a choice to be made about confrontation. As Nathan faces Lester we expect either to see a murder or detente.

Another choice, locally. Whether to read other novels in the Zuckerman series, like American Pastoral.  That is the only gray area Roth leaves me with at the end. The rest is black and white.

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