There are some subjects that lend themselves so well to fiction, that are perfect for spicing up that melting pot of elements an author needs to create something interesting. The Human Stain by Philip Roth chooses the delicious theme of "secrets", the hiding away of the darker aspects of our lives, the attempt to get away from our past and become someone else in the eyes of others. In Roth's hands, the theme takes off in beautiful but inevitably brutal directions. (See my recent post on Anne Perry for a real life example of how "secrets" can come back to bite).
This book, which runs to 361 pages, is about an elderly university professor in New England, Coleman Silk, who loses his job because of an alleged racist slur against two of his students. He also loses his wife in the consequent stress over the scandal and goes on to begin a relationship with a cleaner half his age. He then finds himself targeted by her unstable ex-husband, a Vietnam veteran. We get energetic glimpses at each character's past, slowly discovering that each is keeping something under wraps.
I won't spoil the book by going into the detail of Silk's ultimate secret, which Roth unwraps with perfect pitch and timing. However, I have to say that it was quite difficult to believe that a secret of that nature could be successfully kept from loved ones, close colleagues or friends. In some parts of the book Silk's "hidden truth" is portrayed as being easily uncovered by bit characters but is a big surprise to those who were closest to him. The imagination needs to be stretched.
The narrator is an author, Nathan Zuckerman, who has starred in other books by Roth. We learn that the novel we are reading is in fact the result of his probing into the real life of Silk, his background, what led to his downfall. Sometimes it feels a little strange in terms of viewpoint as there are aspects about Silk that Zuckerman couldn't possibly be in on - and yet, globally, it seems to work in the end. I also felt at times that I wanted to know more about Zuckerman, given that he was the one leading me through the maze. He tended to become an omniscient, know-it-all voice, with rants about the state of America, about the state of our freedoms; it was difficult, however, to take all that from someone who hadn't been totally integrated into the novel.
The book is set against the backdrop of the Clinton and Monica affair in the 90s, with thickly laid references to our overall theme. There is swearing and graphic detail about sex and general grimness, but it's all part of the ride in this America trying to reconcile its respectable and so-called "immoral" sides. At times there are episodes that go on too long, with precise detail that I found got in the way of the story. I found myself skipping chunks of text that read more like Roth simply having a bit of fun with the sound of his own words, almost trying to prove he has an agile, clever mind.
There is no doubt, however, that the characters in this novel stayed with me after I put the book back on my shelf. I am still thinking about some of the deeper issues invoked. What I like about Roth is his attempt to bring together beautiful language and deep ideas, without forgetting the necessary device of plot. I know that many writers nowadays have all but disposed of the idea of having plot in their work, but for me it's a must. I need to have that feeling of a hunt in a novel, to follow a line of crumbs that lead me to some kind of climax or resolution. I look forward now to delving into Roth's other books.