The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Philip Roth writes prose that you can just fall into. It weaves around you and takes you in. His sentences are long and convoluted, nested in paragraphs that are even longer, and he fills that space with the kinds of details that make characters come to life. That’s why I enjoyed the time I spent reading this novel more than I do most books where less attention is paid to the language.
The Human Stain relates the tragedy of Coleman Silk, a dean of a small liberal arts college, who is ousted from his position after he mistakenly uses a racial slur in class. His forced retirement begins a downward spiral in which his wife dies, he begins an affair with a much younger cleaning woman, and eventually dies in an “accident.” The story is definitely presented as high tragedy, fatal flaw and all. The most interesting part is a twist that has to do with Coleman’s identity, about halfway through the book.
One thing about this novel that makes me somewhat uneasy is the presentation of “politically correct” language as trivial. The novel and the events in it could be used as an argument for what happens when minorities are over-sensitive about particular words: innocent members of the group in power get victimized. The hero, Coleman, is a pretty old-fashioned kind of academic, a “humanist” who probably wouldn’t like the different kinds of theory I learned in grad school, 10 years after the book’s 1998 setting. I’m not sure what to think of this aspect of the novel and its relation to the real world; it makes me want to read some criticism on the book to see what others who are smarter than me have said. Regardless of these issues, Roth definitely succeeded in making me identify and sympathize with Coleman, which is a testament to the quality of the writing.