In "The Human Stain", Philip Roth examines how societal propriety can tear a man apart. Drawing a loose parallel to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the novel follows a series of scandals in the life Coleman Silk, a respected dean at a small New England college who lived most his life in "the walled city that is convention" yet retires in disgrace under charges of racism.
Six weeks into one semester, Coleman while calling role, asks whether two students who have failed to yet appear in his class exist, or are "spooks". The phantom students turn out to be black, and after hearing about the comment from classmates, lodge a complaint. A hard nosed dean during his tenure, Coleman had accumulated his share of enemies eager for the opportunity to muddy his reputation in formal hearings.
After retiring in indignation over having been sacrificed to what he sees as the same sort of political correctness blighting all of acadamia, Coleman strikes up an affair with Faunia Farley, an illiterate janitorial worker half his age. The difference in age and class--plus Faunia's history with an abusive husband--draws further scorn from the community, and even his family.
Faunia has found little kindness in human interaction herself--molested by first her wealthy step father and later battered by a drunken husband who finds himself still mired in the swamps of Vietnam. Determined to exist outside of respectable society we find she has only pretended to be illiterate, often fantasizing about her transformation into a crow.
Coleman's defiant response to his enemies at the college and in his family only hints at the depth to which he is willing to deny society's directive. For nearly fifty years he has been passing for white.
He began passing as a teenager while boxing on the amateur circuit, but it isn't until studying at NYU in his mid-twenties that he decides to assume a white identity for life, severing all connections with his family. Coleman justifies this betrayal with the argument that he is merely transcending race, divulging himself of any "oppressive we" in order to become "the greatest of the great pioneers of the I."
Coleman's desire to transcend the limitation of race is certainly understandable--if not possible. Society is particular about it's constructs, and if you are not this, then you must be that. Coleman, whose fitting middle name is Brutus, accepts the mantle of the oppressor race and ensconces himself in that tradition with a life-long career as a Classics professor. Should their be any doubt as to what mindset he has appropriated, Coleman reveals all after taking out a black opponent in the first round of a boxing match. When the promoter scolds Coleman for giving the people their money's worth, Coleman replies, "I don't carry no nigger."
Were any of the characters more sympathetic, had Roth succeeded in evoking some real interest in their fates, the novel would probably feels less contrived and petulant. But even the pathology of his characters can bore. The passages where Faunia's estranged husband Les flashes back to Vietnam are somewhat compelling--particularly his sense of betrayal upon returning home--but ultimately the depiction of his emotional turmoil comes across bluntly. Roth tops off one of Les's diatribes with: "EVERYTHING SO INTENSE AND EVERYBODY FAR FROM HOME AND ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY RAGE!" Smacking the reader upside the head with an emotion like that makes the text BORING BORING BORING FLAT.
The only character that elicited any real interest on my part was Coleman's nemesis, the vindictive young professor Delphine Roux--whose pathological desire to tear into Coleman results from a repressed and unrequited love for him. A woman of tremendous ego and neuroticism, she interprets all of his behavior as a personal affront to herself:
Faunia Farley was his substitute for her. Through Faunia Farley he was striking back at her...By luring a woman who is, as I am employed by Athena College, who is, as I am, less than half your age--yet a woman otherwise my opposite in every way--you at once cleverly masquerade and flagrantly disclose just who it is you wish to destroy.
It is an interesting look at how a scandal monger is motivated by pathology and petty jealousy. It is also the closest Roth comes to making an apt point about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
Unfortunately, in the recently released Hollywood version, Delphine's character is almost completely absent, appearing in only two scenes with only a couple of lines. The characters that are retained, however, fare little better as much of their motivations appear inscrutable on the screen. When Coleman, played by Anthony Hopkins, offers breakfast to Faunia, played by Nicole Kidman, she inexplicably pitches a fit, flinging tableware and screaming about her dead children. The Oscar-studded cast, saddled with both a series of contrived scenarios and the clunky dialog added by the screenwriters, do nothing to save the movie.
Roth's novel is ambitious, attempting to come to some grandiose conclusion about the American moral ethos by drawing on a variety of issues. It is no surprise that Hollywood found it difficult to condense this diffuse narrative to under two hours. People who like Roth's prose style may find the novel worthwhile. The movie is another question.