Human Stain (Review)

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The Human Stain
Philip Roth, 2000
384 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
August 2008

On page 4, the protagonist of Roth's novel, a classics professor, asks his students:

You know how European literature begins?... With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.... Agamemnon, King of men, and great Achilles. And what are they quarreling about these two violent, mighty souls? It's as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman.

And there you have The Iliad, whose characters and raw passions Roth overlays onto a story that takes place some 3,000 years after Troy in the town of Athena, Massachusetts. And those two stories are jammed up right up against the story of Bill and Monica in the White House in the summer of 1998. Boy oh boy—buckle your seatbelts!

The hero /classics professor is 71-year-old Coleman Silk, who after a distinguised career trips up over a supposed racial epithet, is disgraced, and resigns in high dudgeon. Then Coleman meets Faunia (Faun, a wild creature of the woodlands, half goat/ half human), a beautiful janitoress, battered and bruised from her 37-years-of-life—and the two are stalked by Achilles: her Vietnam-warrior ex-husband.

In this work, everyone has a deep background, which Roth painstakingly draws out for us, and many have something to hide. Few are who they seem to be. As the narrator tells us, we can know nothing for sure—life is far too uncertain and mysterious.

The Human Stain ponders the limits of language and logic; it pits human rationality against our primal natures. And as the title suggests, it is about the devastation we humans leave in our wake, on both the grand scale and the small and personal. It's intelligent, powerful, and with Roth's gorgeous prose—one of the best reads ever. Dense prose and long digressions, yes, but hard to put down and hard to end.

See our Reading Guide for The Human Stain.

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