The Human Stain

I finished reading The Human Stain by Philip Roth last week, but haven’t had time to sit down and write about it yet, so here goes!

I really, really, really did not enjoy this book. If you’ve read it and you loved it, sorry. I was required to read it for my Literature and Film class – we’re discussing it tomorrow and watching the movie version next week, so maybe I’ll have some more forgiving things to say after that.

The main character is Coleman, but the story is narrated by his neighbor Nathan, who is a writer. I will try as best I can to give a brief summary, but I’ll warn you that there is a lot more to this book than can be compressed into a summary. Coleman is 71 at the start of the novel, and having an affair with an illiterate woman who is about forty years his junior. Coleman used to be the dean and a professor at the local Athena College, but resigned after an incident in which he referred to his black students as “spooks.” His wife died shortly after that and Coleman blames the stress of the lawsuits, claiming that “they” murdered her. Nathan digs through Coleman’s past to reveal that he is really black, but was able to pass as a white person and disowned his family, never telling his wife about his heritage. He also pretends to be Jewish, which results in none of his children knowing the truth about their own father. One of the boys actually becomes an Orthodox Jew to ‘reclaim’ some nonexistant roots.

Coleman and his lover, the college janitor named Faunia, seem bonded together by pain. Faunia’s stepfather used to molest her, and she has a tormented Viet Nam vet ex-husband who stalks her. Her children died in a fire while she was in a car right outside, distracted by the other man she was with. Despite their differences – he is an academic and she does not know how to read – the bond and form a strange relationship. Faunia tells Coleman that everyone has the “human stain,” that it is so intrinsic it doesn’t leave a mark, and that it is an imprint of all the cruelty and abuse and error in a person’s life. In the end, Coleman and Faunia die in a car crash (on the same road that the ex-husband was driving home on…suspicious…) and Nathan meets Coleman’s black sister at the funeral. He is able to piece together the parts of Coleman’s life, and begins to write a story about it.

The plot does sound interesting – and it is, to an extent. It is twisted and deep and analytical, even profound. But the writing style is what really prevented me from liking this book. Roth writes very loosely. Paragraphs take up 3-5 pages in some areas, and the story jumps from tangent line to tangent line. By the time it returns back to the main idea of the chapter, I had forgotten what the original point was. His diaglogue rambles and his characters fight with each other for equal space on the page. There is also a lot of backstory told at inconvenient times. It will be really interesting to see how the film version adapted the book.

I realize this book has received a lot of good reviews and even won the Pen/Faulkner Award, but it just wasn’t my thing.

The next book I’m going to tackle for that class is The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre. Hopefully it turns out to be a better experience!


2 thoughts on “The Human Stain

  1. I was thrown off by the end — how he had to go back and summarize everything we already knew. I didn’t really get the point of that. It should have been up to the reader to assume what he did, I didn’t want to read about how he wrote the book I was reading. I got the impression Roth thinks highly of his own writing style. All in all… I will never read that book again, and I’m not upset about that.

  2. I agree, Roth could have cut out a lot and it would have been fine, but he wanted to see his own writing more. I really didn’t like how after the climax of the crash there was about 80 pages left, explaining things we already knew.

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