When I read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America in March I was mesmerized and when I found out that I’ve got another Roth on this list I definitely was excited but I was wondering if The Human Stain was capable of topping The Plot…
Oh yes it did! it did!
Coleman Silk is an ex lecturer who resigns from Athena college due to a misunderstanding. This however creates a lot of anger and stress for Silk and his wife and eventually she does die, which makes Silk even more murderous.
As a way of avenging every person who did not support him in this silly mishap he hires Roth alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman to write out this ordeal in the form of a novel. At this point Silk also has an affair with a 35 year old woman called Faunia, who has had a rough life to say the least.
I think that Roth and politics are inseparable and there’s no change here. It is summer of 1998, when President Clinton was on trial for his actions with Monica Lewinsky, throughout the novel Zuckerman compares the president’s situation with Silk’s problems and finds many similarities, the main one being that we all have secrets that can change the way we live. Obviously Lewinsky was Clinton’s secret and in a way Faunia is Coleman Silk’s secret BUT he has one that changed the course of his whole life and Zuckerman finds out about this accidentally.
As things go Silk and his secrets eventually lead to his demise and as a sort of tribute Zuckerman writes a novel about this turbulent summer and calls it…yes The Human Stain. This refers to the stain that was on Lewinsky’s dress and a comment Faunia makes about humankind.
This is a novel that knocks you out of your chair. Roth’s pen absorbs all that is wrong with society and spits them out in this deeply satirical book. At this point I don’t think Roth can do no wrong and let’s hope there’s some more of his books in this list.
With the exception of ‘Portney’s Complaint’ and the superb collection of stories ‘Goodbye Columbus’ , I never was a big fan of Philip Roth. I have read about six of his novels and I find his plots – The plight of the American Jew- too self indulgent. In fact I had attempted to read ‘The Plot Against America’ back in 2004 and abandoned it halfway through. (incidentally I won it for writing a review on Franz Ferdinand’s second album). Now after re-attempting it for a second time, I am super pleased to have finished it and I can safely say that this is one of those books that impressed me greatly and during the last few days, had TONS of trouble putting down.
In essence ‘The Plot…’ plays with a what if situation. In this case it is ‘What if famous pilot Charles Lindbergh was elected as President of the United States?’ for those who do not know Lindbergh did have Nazi connections and did make public announcements that had antiSemite undertones, he was also a promoter of peace though and the novel protrays these aspects of his character perfectly. The year is 1940 and the second world war and consequently the persecution of European Jews is in full swing.
The novel focuses on the Roth family and how Lindbergh’s election affects them and this is where Roth’s craft as a writer really works. In normal hands the book would be about persecutions and violent horrors but Roth steers away from that and documents the amount of paranoia that the father Herman Roth suffers from and it is his actions which actually cause disruptions, rather than Lindbergh’s policies. Through his irrational fear he cuts off relations with his relatives and friends and all of this is told through the son Philip Roth. Again do not expect childlike naivety. One gets the impression that the elder Roth is reeling off memoirs to an audience every fact is is correct and shows no innocence whatsoever.
Towards the end of the novel the real problems start to occur and Lindbergh’s real schemes are exposed and this is when anti Semite killings and violence takes precedence and the book itself ends on a sort of cliffhanger, but in this case It’s not important, what Roth is showing us is how fear can make a human do things to disrupt his daily routine and becomeanimalistic.
There is great subtlety here, nothing is in your face or, until later on, shocking. Disturbing,yes but there is never anything to make you react. This is a novel that creeps up on you and embraces you fully. Yet it is powerful and packs quite a wallop.
It is funny that after writing books for nearly fifty years Roth still hasn’t lost his touch and is still able to entrance people with his writing. One can see that by writing a novel as fantastic as The Plot against America, Roth is one of the few living writers who can be branded as abona fide genius.