§--'s Reviews > The Human Stain

The Human Stain by Philip Roth
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Mar 16, 10

bookshelves: novel
Recommended to §-- by: Time 100 Best Novels; PEN Faulkner award
Read in December, 2009, read count: 1

It's tough to grade this book. Someone correctly pointed out that if this were written by a no-name guy we would all love it. I may be a little too harsh on Roth simply because he is Roth. When Michael Jordan scores 25 points, it's still disappointing, but the rest of us stiffs would love to do it.

Anyway, to the harshness: I would like to see if Philip Roth can write a novel without sex in it. What is worse is that he worships it. As an atheist, it is probably the closest thing to a mystical or ecstatic experience that he can have. I am beginning to think, after reading 6 of his novels, that he really doesn't have anything to say [other than "I like sex with young women and I'm afraid to die.":] but he says it marvelously. In the Human Stain he chooses simply to say it crudely.

This book has been described quite accurately as a long lecture on political correctness. That is a major flaw of the novel--it isn't ambivalent at all. There is no tension--there is a moral to the story and that moral is obvious from page one or even from the blurbs on the back of the book. Philip Roth has written didactic fiction. It is rare that didactic literature is great literature--I'm not sure this is good enough to be considered great. It is done in by its own preachiness and neatness.

But what is the moral, you ask? The moral is not to judge. Having a morality is the great evil that Roth rails against. He stands up for Clinton, and against moralists. So the great outrage is that we can't be hedonists. It insults the intelligence.

Roth seems to have attempted a Greek tragedy and filled it with dozens of references to Greek tragedy (Aeschyus and Sophocles most notably). It fails as a tragedy, however, for a number of reasons. One is that Coleman is missing from a lot of the book--all the stuff on Roux, on Faunia and on Lester--and the reader is hardly convinced that Silk was ever a "great man." Roth overdoes it trying to make us think so, however--Silk is valedictorian, an undefeated boxer, an effortless scholar and prolific seducer ["fishing for girls" in the subway:]. Another reason it fails as tragedy is Roth's nihilism which pervades the entire reading experience [personal note: I actually find it rubbing off on me when I read him for too long; see Everyman]. Still another reason this doesn't work as a tragedy [which is the highest form of literature, a noble goal here but without execution:]

If it hadn't been so heavy handed, it might have worked: Roth does a good job of showing how gossip gets out of hand and how we make decisions without much evidence. Zuckerman, in his campaign against the gossip against Silk, says he "just knows" that Lester did it while he has ZERO evidence. Isn't that gossip as well?

The book drags from p 50 to page 300. That's a pretty long drag. But, to my surprise, Roth actually rewards you for putting up with his musings on crows, on music, and long rambling stream-of-consciousness passages from the perspective of the uncouth and illiterate. The final section (The Purifying Ritual) and the last few pages leading up to it almost make it worth having suffered through all those pages. Almost.

Roth has the ability to write astoundingly brilliant sentences. In most of this book, however, Roth chooses not to do so, instead relying on sentence fragments, repetitive Zuckerman monologues [have you noticed that Zuckerman always sounds like an actor on stage--projecting his voice, emphasizing everything--it sounds impossible but he does it:] It irritated me how many clunkers of sentences there are in this thing when the whole reason I picked it up was for Roth's mammoth ability with grammar.

As usual, Roth doesn't get women. That's okay sometimes; I don't get women. But Roth goes further than misunderstanding them, he has a little poorly concealed bitterness. Zuckerman and Coleman Silk talk about "the gift of molestation" -- Faunia had been molested and thereby had learned to leave in the morning when you're done with her. I didn't find this funny and it hurt my ability to like/get into the novel.

Roth's women are almost all stereotyped and usually do stupid things. Most are perpetually being victimized, often sexually, and all his female characters seem to want is to have sex with Philip Roth. Every Roth book has one suffering woman and a sex-crazed man. Here are a couple of Roth's most glaringly ugly passages, passages which I typed out because they were simply that bad.

Faunia says impossible stupid things like, "I'm dancing in front of you with the lights on, and you're naked too, and all the other stuff doesn't matter. It's the simplest thing we've ever done--it's it. Don't fuck it up by thinking it's more than this. You don't, and I won't. It doesn't have to be more than this. You know what? I see you, Coleman. You know what? I see you. You think--if you ever want to know--is there a God? You want to know why am I in this world? What is it about? It's about this. It's about, You're here and I'll do it for you. It's about not thinking you're someone somewhere else. You're a woman and you're in bed with your husband and you're not fucking for fucking, you're not fucking to come, you're fucking because you're in bed with your husband and it's the right thing to do." (p. 228) Doesn't this sound like it should be delivered by someone with an accent, not Nicole Kidman (who plays her in the movie)?

It gets way worse. Ready? 2 pages later, same speaker: "After two hundred and sixty blow jobs and four hundred regular fucks and a hundred and six asshole fucks, the flirtation begins. But that's the way it goes. How many times has anyone in the world ever loved before they fucked? How many times have I loved after I fucked? Or is this it, the groundbreaker? Do you want to know what I feel like? I feel so good."

Now I don't mind a little vulgarity, but half of this book is Zuckerman imagining the thoughts of the PTSD case Lester Farley, who is a Vietnam Veteran and says the word "gook" about a million times. Roth overdoes it. Why bother having Zuckerman tell the story if it's going to be in the voice of a couple of illiterates? The whole point of Roth's using Zuckerman was, in Roth's words, "to get my intelligence onto the page." Roth simply punts it here. The story is uninteresting, the narrative is painfully slow and the characters are so odd as to not seem real or even possible. Though, I must say, someone on Goodreads accurately pointed out that if someone not famous or even anyone other than Roth had written this, we'd think it was pretty good. He's sort of right; I should also add that if this hadn't won the Pen/Faulkner award I wouldn't have been so disappointed.

[Update: I saw the movie and it is even worse. The only actor who actually showed up to work, apparently, was Ed Harris. How can you make Zuckerman Gary Sinise?! All that stuff about prostates and impotence makes no sense! The worst, though, was Channing Tatum (how is that even a name?) who talked like a serial killer the whole movie (by the way, the girl he seduces is FUGLY. Come on, this is a movie. At least give me some unrealistically attractive people.) And the scene where they flirt by boxing is hilariously bad in the same way that Tron is or Surf Ninjas is. The movie is only 100 minutes or so, which shows, despite the page-length, how little "story" there really is in this novel.]

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