After devoting most of the previous decade to two memoirs and five books about his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth took an extraordinary turn in the 1990’s. With his five award-winning novels, he engaged the history of his time in a way that stunned and surprised readers and critics. The Human Stain—which won the National Jewish Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the W. H. Smith Award, the Prix Médicis, and other awards—is the third in a series of books, including American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998), now known as his American trilogy.
Like American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, The Human Stain is a novel in which Roth’s persistent concern with the relationship between fact and fiction is embedded in the story of Zuckerman’s effort to reconstruct and understand the life and death of an older man, one who set out, like most of Roth’s protagonists, to break out of the cage of identity imposed by his family and society to invent (and reinvent) himself. Like two of Roth’s other characters, Swede Levov and Ira Ringold, Coleman Silk tries to escape the “we” to create his own “I.” At first he succeeds, only to be brought down by his own flaws and the larger currents in his time.
In each novel, how the story is told is just as critical to its character and achievement as the tale itself. Plot summary cannot do justice to the effect of any of these books. Their nature is defined by the ways in which the elements of the plots are revealed, arrayed, and expressed; by the generalizations and connections Zuckerman makes; and by the way that the line between fiction and fact blurs in his accounts. For example, the reader knows early in The Human Stain that its main characters have died. One-third of the way through the novel, Roth reveals the secret of Silk’s passing as white, but it is only in the last forty pages of the book that Zuckerman actually learns about Silk’s secret (from Silk’s sister, Ernestine) and about one of Faunia Farley’s most startling self-transformations (from an overheard conversation in a café). Roth’s decision to parcel out such information as he does is crucial to the central concerns of the novel. In a book that treats political correctness, the culture wars, public sanctimony, and racial identity, what people “know” or think they know about others is precisely what Roth is bent on...
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