Roth can write a beautiful sentence. Indeed he can write a beautiful paragraph. And The Human Stain has lots of them, it’s a very easy book to read. But once I’d put it down, I felt under very little compulsion to pick it up again. Ultimately, I don’t think it adds up to the sum of its parts.
Partly this is personal preference. I like plots. And throughout, the plot comes third behind Roth’s desire to expand on his characters, and the books message. As a character study, the main protagonist, Coleman Silk, is brilliantly portrayed and wholly convincing, as is his family and upbringing. Roth’s ear and tone for New Jersey in the 1940s is superb, and also for the academia parts. When he leaves that setting though he’s less successful. Faunia Farley never really seems a real person, while considerable (and sometimes repetetive) exposition fails to lift her ex-husband from cliche. The book struggles to grip you as soon as Silk is not directly involved.
The other problem is Roth’s agenda. The book clearly sets itself against multi-cultural, relativist, political culture in academia, against some assumed ideal humanist, meritocratic, liberal utopia, with echoes of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Roth cleverly uses subversive mouthpieces for his viewpoints. Silk, an ostensibly Jewish professor who is secretly from a light-skinned African-American family is undermined by ridiculous allegations of racism. His sister rails against Black History Month, while another black professor decries political correctness. Meanwhile a young French female literary theorist incarnates all that is wrong with contemporary academia, she is not only the villain of the piece, but also revealed as sceptical herself of the value of theory and in awe of the elite culture humanist scholars.
The Human Stain is not quite as reactionary or as blunt as that paragraph might suggest, but however much sympathy he might get for his arguments they don’t work as a sociological analysis. Likewise, as a work of fiction, it’s undermined by the way the narrative has to fit around Roth’s thesis. It’s a testament to his strengths as a writer that this flaw is not fatal to enjoying the book.