Philip Roth’s The Human Stain
Warning: plot spoiler
This is my second Philip Roth experience. I read American Pastoral in grad school and completely fell in love with his grand, swooping prose. The Human Stain is another Nathan Zuckerman book, so the tone and voice is the same, and I still like it very much. He occasionally overwrites — everything is fraught with introspection and analysis, so no one is every just fishing or watching a symphony, but it all means something — but by and large I think he navigates his books very well. I mean, the guy’s written thirty books, so we can assume he knows a little bit about what he’s doing.
The Human Stain began to drag just a bit for me after Coleman Silk’s death, and I wanted it to just end already. I couldn’t understand why there were so many pages left. But then I came to the last scene, with Zuckerman and Les Farley out on the frozen pond, and I understood that we needed to get to this point. That long interaction between the two men was one of the highlights of the book. It was really beautiful and nuanced.
I like the way Roth, through Zuckerman, always plays with POV. He almost effortlessly melds a third-person voice into a first-person consciousness. And when you get to the end, you have to wonder how much was true and how much Zuckerman just made up. That uncertainty was even more palpable at the end of American Pastoral because Zuckerman wasn’t so present as a character in that book as he is in The Human Stain, in which we never forget that it’s Zuckerman telling us the story. Good work, Zuckerman. I liked it.