Saturday, July 18, 2009

Human Stain, Say What?

I read The Human Stain by Philip Roth last month. The story is set in the nineteen-nineties in America. The backdrop, of course, is the era of the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal. The narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, a reclusive writer and neighbor to Coleman Silk. Silk is a seventy-one-year-old classics professor and dean of faculty at Athena College in the Berkshires. Radicals charge Silk with racism when two of his black students are slackers who never show up to class. He calls them" spooks" because they never come, not because of their race. He asks his class, rhetorically, "Do they exist or are they spooks?" This line --- no, the word spooks --- leads to all hell breaking loose for Zuckerman.

This particular setup for the novel --- radicals being able to portray Silk as a racist leading to his resignation from the college on such a slim basis --- seems quite implausible to me. I don't believe anybody is as daft as the individuals portrayed as radicals out to get Silk fired.

While I didn't like the set-up that much, I did love the writing and storytelling. I would read the book again simply to enjoy the way Roth puts a sentence together and the way he is able to interweave a story line. I particularly liked the symbolism of the ravens in the book.

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