Life and life only

At the top of his form, Philip Roth delivers an astounding novel about three issues that make Americans crazy: Race, sex and Monica.

Published April 24, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Toward the end of "The Human Stain," Philip Roth's astounding new novel, which closes out the loose trilogy that includes "American Pastoral" and "I Married a Communist," a character says, "With every passing day, the words that I hear spoken strike me as less and less of a description of what things really are." That's a writer's nightmare: language transformed from description to euphemism and apologia, according to what's appropriate rather than what's true. And in Roth's vision of America as both a bizarro world and a society ruled by proscription, it's a measure of the derangement of everyday life. That derangement encompasses not just the breakdown of language's ability to convey experience but also the revival of what Roth calls "America's oldest communal passion ... the ecstasy of sanctimony." Set during the summer of 1998, the months that served as the prelude to President Clinton's impeachment, "The Human Stain" is about the ecstasy that nearly destroyed Clinton and that does destroy Roth's protagonist.

Coleman Silk is a respected if tactless classics professor at Athena College, a small school in the Berkshires. Roth sets the scene of his hero's destruction ominously:

It was about midway into his second semester back as a full-time professor that Coleman spoke the self-incriminating word that would cause him to voluntarily sever all ties to the college -- the single self-incriminating word of the many millions spoken aloud in his years of teaching and administering at Athena, and the word that, as Coleman understood things, directly led to his wife's death.

That's a hell of a setup. It puts all of your "And then what happened?" instincts on high alert: You might be coming to a Dumas-style cliffhanger or to an instance of hubris straight out of Greek tragedy. What Roth gives us instead is farce. Noticing that two students have yet to appear in class five weeks into the semester, Coleman asks, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?" It turns out that the missing students are black, and when they hear about Coleman's question, they file a complaint charging him with racism. Coleman explains, of course, that he was using "spooks" not as a racist epithet but simply as a synonym for "phantoms."

But his astonishment at having to offer this obvious, elementary defense is matched by his contempt. Like a lot of intelligent people in recent years, Coleman finds himself in the position of having to do something akin to explaining that water is wet; it's the type of explanation no rational person should have to make and no rational person would demand. Coleman finds no defenders among his faculty colleagues and more than a few of them ready to take revenge for the exacting standards he maintained when he was dean. He resigns in a huff, and a few months later his wife is dead -- killed, he is sure, by the vicious charges against him.

Still, his persecution isn't over. The 71-year-old widower begins an affair with an illiterate 34-year-old college cleaning woman named Faunia Farley. For both of them it's a retreat into the pleasures of uncomplicated sex. Coleman is working to lay aside the rage that has consumed him since his resignation. Faunia is trying to forget the accident that left her two children dead and for which her ex-husband, a psychotic Vietnam vet, blames her and is still stalking her. But this is a country where private acts are now open to public scrutiny, and so the affair holds no solace at all. Having already been "proved" a racist in the college community, Coleman -- like the president who is being hounded by Congress and the press -- is now ripe to fill the role of the powerful man "sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age," as an anonymous letter writer puts it.

The revelation about the corruption of language at the heart of the book (and if you want to preserve the surprise for yourself, you should stop reading right here) comes, fittingly, in a precisely chosen word. "What burns away the camouflage and the covering and the concealment?" Roth asks. "This, the right word uttered spontaneously, without one's even having to think." For Coleman, the right word comes in a conversation he's having with the young attorney he has consulted after being harassed by Faunia's ex. Instead of the legal action the old man expects, he finds himself on the receiving end of a presumptuous and condescending lecture, the gist of which is that he should end his affair with Faunia. With the cloud of racism hovering over Coleman's reputation, the lawyer tells him, he is courting scandal by being "involved with this woman." Coleman hears out the harangue, and then he replies, "I never again want to hear that self-admiring voice of yours or see your smug fucking lily-white face." And though the young lawyer is perplexed ("Why 'lily-white'?"), Coleman knows he has burned away "the camouflage and the covering and the concealment" from the truth he has hidden for years: the fact that he's black.

Roth writes as if to illustrate the distinction Terry Southern once made between the desire to shock and the determination to astonish. He doesn't seem to know any way to write except boldly, and in the past 10 years he has taken more risks than any other American writer. The revelation that Coleman has been passing as white is not as flamboyant as the examination of the split in the Jewish psyche in "Operation Shylock," Roth's riskiest book and his greatest comic achievement. But at a time when the issue of race seems more barbed and complex than it ever has, when the clear-cut moral assurances of the civil rights years have disappeared, it's still brave enough.

The thrill of gossip become literature hovers over "The Human Stain": There's no way Roth could have tackled this subject without thinking of Anatole Broyard, the late literary critic who passed as white for many years. But Coleman Silk is a singularly conceived and realized character, and his hidden racial past is a trap Roth has laid for his readers -- a temptation to fall into the judgmental mind-set, "so rich with contempt for every human problem you've never had to face," that is the book's primary target.

Coleman's light skin is what makes his deception possible, but what makes it necessary -- for him -- is his profound desire to be an individual. Following the wishes of the father "who had been making up Coleman's story for him," the young Coleman had left his home in East Orange, N.J., for Howard University, where he found himself in a velvet-lined version of the invisibility Ralph Ellison famously described:

He discovered at Howard that he was a Negro as well. A Howard Negro at that. Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the we's overbearing solidity, and he didn't want anything to do with it or with the next oppressive we that came along either. You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we? Another place that's just like that, the substitute for that? Growing up in East Orange, he was of course a Negro, very much of their small community of five thousand or so, but boxing, running, studying, at everything he did concentrating and succeeding ... he was, without thinking about it, everything else as well. He was Coleman, the greatest of the great pioneersof the I.

What, you can imagine Roth's critics asking, would a Jew know about this? A lot. The comedy of Roth's early work, which another set of detractors has long used to peg him as a self-loathing Jew, came from the tension between background and aspiration, the desire to propel oneself out of everything provincial and stultifying in one's upbringing. "The Human Stain" offers Roth's most ruthless (and least comic) example of this will to separate. In order to be who he wants to be, Coleman is willing to tell his widowed mother that he has decided to live as a white man, that he will never see her again and that she will never see her grandchildren, will never even know if she has any.

Roth's rendering of Coleman's resolve is a brilliant example of what can happen when a writer sets out to understand experience rather than to judge it:

Did he get, from his decision, the adventure he was after, or was the decision in itself the adventure? Was it the misleading that provided his pleasure, the carrying off of the stunt that he liked best, the traveling through life incognito, or had he simply been closing the door to a past, to people, to a whole race that he wanted nothing intimate or official to do with? Was it the social obstruction that he wished to sidestep? Was he merely being another American and, in the great frontier tradition, accepting the democratic invitation to throw your origins overboard if to do so contributes to the pursuit of happiness? Or was it more than that? Or was it less? How petty were his motives? How pathological? And suppose they were both -- what of it? And suppose they weren't -- what of that?

That Roth should pose those questions toward the end of the book, where most writers would begin summing up, is evidence of his determination that literature amplify rather than reduce. But he never lets us forget that the present is a distorting mirror in which Coleman's decision to be separate finds reflections he could never have anticipated. The biggest of these distortions, for Roth, is the one between the good intentions of midcentury liberalism and the blight that has been its outcome.

In the closing scenes, novelist Nathan Zuckerman -- who functions in this book, once again, as Roth's narrator and mouthpiece -- talks to Coleman's sister, Ernestine, the one family member who, through surreptitious phone calls on the occasions of births and deaths and marriages, has kept in touch with her brother. Ernestine is a schoolteacher who has remained in East Orange -- she still lives in the house she grew up in -- and felt the familiar galling paradox of becoming more empowered with rights while simultaneously seeing the middle- and working-class neighborhood she grew up in destroyed by the blinkered good intentions of urban renewal. If you grew up in the suburbs, as I did, listening to a parent who had grown up in the city talk about what it was like, you can hear in Ernestine's voice the unsentimental nostalgia of bitterness fighting it out with melancholy:

I used to be able to do all my Christmas shopping on Main Street. You know what we've got today? We've got a ShopRite. And we've got a Dunkin' Donuts. And there was a Domino's Pizza, but they closed. Now they've got another food place. And there's a cleaners. But you can't compare quality. It's not the same.

Yet that physical desecration seems puny next to the intellectual desecration she describes to Zuckerman:

Youngsters were coming to me the year I retired, telling me that for Black History Month they would only read a biography of a black by a black. What difference, I would ask them, if it's a black author or it's a white author? I'm impatient with Black History Month altogether. I liken having a Black History Month in February and concentrating study on that to milk that's just about to go sour. You can drink it, but it doesn't taste right.

Those words are something like a death knell for the liberalism Roth thought he knew. It's as if E.M. Forster's great dictum "Only connect," which had seemed so romantic and noble when young people rediscovered him in the '60s, had been replaced by a new generation of inner-city youth with "Only separate."

Roth, though, has refused to separate, even if his mouthpiece, Zuckerman (who has been at the center of eight Roth novels since 1979's "The Ghost Writer"), has tried to. In "American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and now "The Human Stain," Zuckerman, having withdrawn from everything but work, is living in a two-room cottage in the Berkshires. His separation is, of course, doomed to failure: Life, in the form of other people, keeps flooding in.

In "American Pastoral," it's the hero of Zuckerman's youth, the Jewish athlete whose blue-eyed, golden-haired good looks and later success in everything seemed to contain a whole Jewish generation's dreams of assimilation. In "I Married a Communist," it's Zuckerman's high school English teacher, Murray Ringold, a victim of the blacklist, and Ringold's radio-actor brother, Zuckerman's first mentor. Coleman Silk does not figure in the novelist's past; Zuckerman first meets him when Coleman bursts into his refuge, insisting that Zuckerman write the story of his persecution. Zuckerman initially declines, but a friendship begins, partly because the two men share a frame of reference.

Though Roth is nearing 70, both the quality and the quantity of his writing -- six novels in the past 10 years -- are evidence of an amazing vigor. Still, you read this trilogy conscious that the author is trying to fix the middle-class Jewish Newark of his youth in much the same way that, at a certain age, you begin asking your parents to repeat the stories you've grown up hearing, to make sure you have the details right -- accepting your role as repository of memory. In "I Married a Communist" Ringold reconstructs Newark's vanished Italian First Ward in a long description that is as full and affectionate as Ernestine's description of present-day East Orange is spare and disdainful. It's just one of the many echoes of memory in these three books, which are haunted by the past. And yet there is a terrible, twisted continuity in the way Roth links the past with the present.

"American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain" can be read independently of one another, but they come together more fully than any set of American works since the first two "Godfather" movies, forming an epic portrait of what Roth calls "the indigenous American berserk" -- that is, the craziness that always threatens to topple real life into (as Greil Marcus put it just as Clinton's detractors were building up a head of steam) what passes for real life these days.

The two earlier versions of the berserk -- the rise of the leftist fringe during the Vietnam War in "American Pastoral," McCarthyism in "I Married a Communist" -- are more cataclysmic than "the ecstasy of sanctimony" that found its outlet in the impeachment of Clinton, but this latest outbreak is the most disturbingly widespread. After two books in which, respectively, the delusions of the left and the delusions of the right took center stage, Roth has written a concluding volume in which the delusions of each side come together, the hunting of Clinton (from the right) finding its perfect echo in the hunting of Coleman (from the left).

At first it may seem that Roth is a few years behind the zeitgeist: The culture wars of the early '90s look almost as distant now as the '68 Chicago police riots did by the time of the '72 presidential election. Even the term "p.c." has taken on a certain quaintness. But think about it for a minute, and you realize how deeply the passion for what is "appropriate" has come to rule public discourse on both the right and the left. Pick up the April Playboy and you can read conservative tag-team Evans and Novak calling Clinton's infidelity "relevant" because "when you are doing things in the working quarters of the White House ... that is in the public domain." A recent Time Out New York contained this description of D.W. Griffith's tenderest masterpiece, "Broken Blossoms": "If you can get past famous white dude Richard Barthelmess playing an Asian, there's much to admire in this sensitive melodrama."

For Roth, the need to cushion circumstances that any normal adult should be able to understand is the wellspring in the impeachment drama. He calls the summer of 1998 the time "when the moral obligation to explain to one's children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life." In the America of "The Human Stain" we have all become children, talking to and talked to by others as if the primary function of adult conversation were protection.

Yet for all that, these books suggest a deep determination to avoid rage. The characters who succumb to it bring about their destruction. Even the epiphanies of disgust in these novels (like the scene in "I Married a Communist" in which Roth describes what he regards as the most ludicrous, self-deluding spectacle in recent American life, the funeral of Richard Nixon) reach their pitch of emotion through hard, measured reason. Proceeding from the assumption that adults don't need coddling, Roth addresses us in language as direct and as clear as he can make it.

I've hardly touched on the book's finely drawn characters, or on the concrete and subtle ways that Coleman's predicament links up with Clinton's, the two of them captured in Roth's title, which denotes both the notorious stain on Monica Lewinsky's blue Gap dress and the basic fact of human imperfection. "The Human Stain" is the capstone to a cycle, both cruel and brave, of novels that Roth has graced with a lovingly unsentimental portrait of his own vanished past. At the end, the voice of his alter ego and hero, Nathan Zuckerman, moves from a solitary, familiar "I" back to an uncertain "we." Where that change will lead the novelist and his creation isn't clear. Roth's portrait of the derangement we've accepted in real life -- or what passes for it these days -- leaves it open as to whether Zuckerman is headed back to a bizarro world or to a world where the novelist's voice could find an audience willing to listen.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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