Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is a rare example of a book which manages to engage successfully with modern culture without sacrificing its creative flourish. Recently I’ve found myself uninspired by contemporary realist novels; British fiction, in particular, appears to be experiencing a lull. Perhaps this is solely a British phenomenon, however, as the works of other contemporary authors like Philip Roth, Yiyun Li and Xiaolu Guo feel vibrant as well as engaging.
The Human Stain offers an examination of the core values of American culture. The central character, a retired college professor called Coleman Silk, has an affair with an illiterate younger woman. The community responds to the revelation of their affair with repulsion; some even fear that Coleman, already ousted from the university following accusations of racism, is exploiting his lover. This reaction provides an insightful account of the difficult feelings many people hold about the issue of sex and the elderly. The shock caused by their affair suggests that many people struggle to comprehend the notion that sexuality doesn’t just disappear once you pass the age of sixty.
How can one say, ‘No, this isn’t a part of life,’ since it always is? The contaminant of sex, the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.
The reaction provoked by Coleman’s affair reflects one of the wider themes of the novel: a phenomenon Roth titles ‘the ecstasy of sanctimony’. The novel takes place following the exposure of Bill Clinton’s affairs, amidst a culture in which the public respond to the news of sexual deviancy with a ‘piety binge’, an outbreak of frenzied morality. Roth’s portrayal of the media as ‘righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore and punish’ speaks for far more than just Clinton-era America; it reads like a cutting indictment of a certain self-righteous strand of thought which persists in modern mass culture.
The issue of race is at heart of this novel. I think, however, that the only way to do justice to The Human Stain’s representation of modern American society would be to recommend wholeheartedly that you read it.