Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Human Stain

Last night I finished reading The Human Stain by Phillip Roth. A curious book and one that I feel, as so often with novels that are either polemical or have some profound point to make, has a meaning that passes me by. The novel is (and this is all in my own words) the story of Coleman Silk, a retired college professor who has lived his whole life with a striking secret. The author Phillip Roth, appears in this book as an author(!) called Nathan Zuckerman who briefly becomes a close friend of Silk and is writing the book, The Human Stain! Essentially I got the impression that the human stain is the infinite secrets that we all have and the corrosive effect that those secrets have on those around us and closest to our hearts. Furthermore, it seemed to be making a strong point about how our prejudices and biases can have serious and sometimes catastrophic consequences for others. It is about the trail that we leave behind, the unavoidable imprint of who and what we are.

I guess we can never escape from the people that we are, although notably that is what the characters in The Human Stain appear to be trying to do. Coleman Silk, the most obvious example, is a Negro who has renounced his roots and lived his whole life as a 'white' man, cutting himself off from his family and keeping his true heritage secret from his wife of fifty years and his four children. It is the unravelling of this secret and Silk's life as a fake, that is the heart of The Human Stain.

This is the second book I have read by Roth, the first, The Plot Against America, was written in a similar style. It is a clever style as it felt to me like I was eavesdropping on these characters lives. It was interesting how Roth himself is both at once part of the story as a passive observer and also the narrator, an interesting storytelling device.

No comments: