Illustration by Jordin Isip

In 1960, Philip Roth published an essay in which he lamented, among other things, the increasing inability of the fiction writer to out-imagine current events. “The actuality,” he wrote, “is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist.” At the time, Roth was speaking less from experience than from intuition; just 27, he was the author of a single volume, the National Book Award–winning Goodbye, Columbus, which had appeared the previous year. Still, despite his callowness, Roth’s comments were nothing if not prescient, not merely in regard to their historical moment, but to the future we now occupy. How, after all, can fiction hope to remain relevant in a world where the president of the United States is impeached for lying about a blowjob? For Roth, it seems, the only reasonable solution was to focus inward. From the ribald hilarity of Portnoy’s Complaint to the metafiction of The Counterlife, he has, with few exceptions, spent the last four decades eschewing larger cultural perspectives for the more insular pleasures of self-revelation, portraying the machinations of society, if at all, as little more than a backdrop for the intricacies of his own, barely fictionalized inner life.

Since the mid-1990s, however, Roth appears to have reconsidered his position on the relationship of reality and fiction, turning his attention to a trilogy of novels that, in their own interior fashion, trace a psychic history of America during the postwar years. Beginning with American Pastoral, an account of one family’s disintegration amid the radical fervor of the 1960s, and continuing with I Married a Communist, which brings a similar point of view to the McCarthyite hysteria of the early 1950s, these works represent not so much Roth’s reinvention as a writer as a subtle widening of his vision, to encompass the impact of broad social movements on individual lives. What Roth is after here is the notion that our hearts, our minds, our very existences, are inevitably influenced by the events that swirl around us — not what they say about politics or culture, necessarily, but how they constitute a Zeitgeist, setting a tone that comes to permeate an age. In that regard, it’s only fitting that Roth should complete his trilogy with The Human Stain, a novel that unfolds in the more contemporary context of the Clinton-impeachment summer of 1998, or, as the author acidly describes it, “the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism — which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country’s security — was succeeded by cocksucking.”

There’s something angry about such a statement, something aggrieved, as if Roth had come to The Human Stain with an ax to grind. That’s one of the dangers of writing a novel inspired by so recent and polarizing a circumstance, but if Roth occasionally slips into moral shrillness, he mostly manages to give his book an astonishingly timeless feel. Partly this has to do with the presence of Nathan Zuckerman, the author’s longtime fictional alter ego, who narrates the novel less as a character than as an observer, providing a key bit of distance between Roth and his material. Just as important, though, is the sheer human pathos of the story Zuckerman tells, which revolves around Coleman Silk, a 71-year-old New England college dean who is driven into retirement after being accused, spuriously, of using a racial epithet, only to be hounded further when he is discovered to be having an affair with an illiterate cleaning woman half his age. Clearly, there are parallels to the Clinton scandal, yet to read the novel as a parable of our current cultural puritanism is to miss the larger point. Even the title, which at first makes one think of Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress, speaks more directly to the human condition, our ongoing, irresolvable battle between spirit and substance, between the beauty of our ideals and the baseness of our essential selves. “[W]e leave a stain,” Roth explains, “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.”

One can read Roth’s idea of “the human stain” in any number of ways — as original sin, say, or the mark of Cain. But perhaps most compelling is the notion that, as individuals, we have all been touched in some sense, preprogrammed, like the characters in an ancient Greek drama, with irredeemable tragic flaws. This seems to be Roth’s conception, for the universe he delineates in The Human Stain is one in which the simplest slips, the least significant decisions, lead to destruction, and our fates are written in the raveling fibers of our souls. It’s a point that Silk, a former classics professor, makes explicit. “No,” he thinks, seeing himself in terms of the Greek dramas he’s spent a lifetime teaching, “he does not have to live like a tragic character in any course,” even as the logic of the novel insists he does. Silk’s downfall, actually, is assured by the one secret he must guard above all others, a secret so bound up in his sense of self, his identity, that, when Roth reveals it about 100 pages into the novel, we recognize that it will consume him. The irony is that, while the novel centers on the complicated bond between Silk and his lover, Faunia — who according to the campus gossip is little more than a sexual Galatea to the old dean’s Pygmalion, even though, as Roth presents it, theirs is a relationship of equals on the emotional plane — the real tragedy of Silk’s life is one that nobody can know. “Because we don’t know, do we?” Roth admonishes. “. . . What we know is that, in an unclichéd way, nobody knows anything. You can’t know anything. The things you know you don’t know. Intention? Motive? Consequence? Meaning? All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.”


What such a posture offers is a way for Roth to enlarge The Human Stain to the level of myth. If there is no knowing, after all, then there is only conjecture, versions of the truth that we accept or disregard in keeping with our beliefs. The notion is enhanced by Zuckerman’s narration, which adds a further conditional layer to the events he describes; his outsider status means that much of what he tells us must, of necessity, come from his imagination, as he tries to piece together the details of Silk’s life. At times this can backfire; Zuckerman’s riffs on Silk’s children, for instance, are mostly pat and two-dimensional, while his portrayal of Delphine Roux, the feminist professor who becomes Silk’s most outspoken adversary, never takes shape beneath Zuckerman’s judgment as anything other than a stereotype of political correctness run amok. Such flaws, however, end up working to Roth’s advantage, by illuminating the biases that mark Zuckerman (or is it Roth?) as much as anyone in the book. “For better or worse,” the character tells us, in what may be the novel’s truest moment, “I can only do what everyone does who thinks that they know. I imagine. I am forced to imagine. It happens to be what I do for a living. It is my job. It’s now all I do.”

Ultimately, Zuckerman’s admission stands as a powerful coda not only for Silk or the novel he anchors, but for our whole voyeuristic culture, which, Roth suggests, has let itself be consumed by “America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony.” This is what provoked the McCarthy witch-hunts and, in a different way, the political upheavals of the 1960s, as well as the Clinton impeachment; and it is the through line that joins The Human Stain to American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. Equally significant, though, is Roth’s understanding of just how easily public sentiment can inform private crises, turning our most personal dramas into passion plays. “The truth about us is endless,” he declares. “As are the lies.”

THE HUMAN STAIN | By PHILIP ROTH | Houghton Mifflin | 361 pages | $26 hardcover

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