2018-002: The Human Stain, Philip Roth

“There could be such a gigantic gap between what she liked and what she was supposed to admire—between how she was supposed to speak about what she was supposed to admire and how she spoke to herself about the writers she treasured….”

When I look at my reading habits, when I think about myself as a reader, I see myself oscillating between two extremes; between the reader who wants to be the kind who reads Philip Roth, and the reader who knows he’s more at home reading Stephen King. I want to be engaged with capital-L literature; big social themes and deep thoughts and virtuosic crafting of language. I know I’m more interested in finding out what happens, who did it.* But I know I’m not entirely happy wholly at one end or the other. When there’s less motion to the story, I grow restless and fidgety. But when the story’s about little more than it’s own motion, I feel hollow, unsatisfied.

I also know this spectrum and my placement of myself on it are fabrications, but they’re useful ones, ones that help me describe my headspace and the internal tensions that I prodded and poked at as I read The Human Stain, the third book of Philip Roth’s American Trilogy.** Why do I read 20, maybe 30 pages of Roth, whose prose is so not hard and is so often so punchy and grabby and physical and damned well-done, only to get distracted by pretty much whatever? I could certainly, likely, sit down tomorrow and fly through who knows how many pages of the The Stand without really trying. I recognize that both are awesome, in different ways, but, man, what’s slowing me down when it comes to the book without the death virus in it?

I pick on Roth and King for convenience sake, trusting you to know what I mean, and that we can both agree that the situation is certainly far more complex than that. True, the prose styling of Roth is more savory, a bit meatier, and yet there certainly is story to Stain, a certain what-happens-next element to it, though it’s of a whole with the first two books of the trilogy—American Pastoral and I Married a Communist—in that they’re more about keying off neatly summarizable plots focused on specific events and just unfolding around them, digging in, swooping back out, revisiting, circling, zooming, withdrawing, shifting and sliding between periods and points of view. Finding the waves of complexity and conflict that certain events invite and expel, swallowing swaths of the American experience in the process.***

And what is the American experience?

“To become a new being. To bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving—and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands.”

I was reminded, reading reviews, about this theme, throughout Roth’s writings and the Zuckerman books in particular, of generational rebellion, of the leaving behind of what feels like someone else’s past toward one’s own future, and that might be what I’d attach myself back to, in the hypothetical future where I re-read the series, looking to see what I missed the first time through. I also wonder about the supposed nostalgic threads that run through the books, as I come to them here in an America in 2018 where the very notion of nostalgia has been co-opted (well, has been co-opted more loudly and horrifyingly than ever before) toward sickening, racist ends.

Hmm. I’m not really satisfied with any of this. Anyways: want some stray thoughts? I got some stray thoughts:

  • Who’s going to be the Philip Roth of this incredibly dumb historical moment we’ve landed ourselves in? The 20th century was a pretty fascinating century and here we are in a time that is somehow both far more simplistic and far more complex, better yet dumber at the same time. Who’s doing for us what Roth is doing for them?
  • And just how easy is it to see the connective tissue between the history Roth describes and the one we find ourselves in now?
  • After finishing Stain, I’ve only got one Zuckerman book left to go, Exit Ghost. (Which I’ve already ordered. No time like the present. By which I mean, who knows when, actually.) I read a handful of Roth’s slimmer, later books a while back—Indignation, which I think I liked, and Everyman, which I recall feeling particularly affected by; I mean, well, death—so I sort of feel like I can guess what to expect. That said, in sampling reviews of the American Trilogy I’ve also come to realize how little personal stake I have in the idea of Zuckerman as a character, bifurcated from Roth himself to whatever degree. (I suspect I probably need to re-read The Ghost Writer before finishing the series.) Still, though, there’s some degree of, “Well, huh, I guess that’s over,” to knowing that, well, that’s about to be over.
  • Another thing that sampling reviews helped me with was refreshing the context of these books compared to “typical Roth.” They’ve been Roth to me, the last few years, and it’s been an age since I’ve read anything like Portnoy’s Complaint, so I have to remind myself that, yeah, it’s interesting that, for whatever sex there is in these books, they’re not sex books.
  • The idea that the book rails against political correctness feels to me like the least interesting thing about it? As important as it may be to the themes and plot. But there’s probably an entire essay to be written linking that theme of the book through to where we find ourselves today, the evolution of that idea over the last two decades.
  • I forgot about the Anatole Broyard controversy. Secondary sources!
  • I like David Lodge’s summation of what the books that comprise The American Trilogy are about, from a review of The Dying Animal in The New York Review of Books; of course, I’m sure it raises some questions about what that American Dream was about, and whose dream it was to dream, questions that would be worth carrying back into a re-read of the series.

“In these books he adopted something like the model of the classic realist novel, in which individual fortunes are traced across a panorama of social change and historical events, the individual and the social illuminating and borrowing significance from each other in the process…. Their lives are also affected by and illustrative of profound convulsions, conflicts, and crises in American social and political life over the past half-century…. The trilogy is a kind of elegy for the death of the American Dream as it seemed to present itself in the innocent and hopeful 1950s, and has been widely and deservedly acclaimed.”

* – Funny, for someone who doesn’t read that much mystery.

** – I read the trilogy one per year, starting in 2015, as whatever may have been left of whatever the American Dream might have been has gotten chewed up, spat back out, and urinated on. This book-a-year strategy, I’ve been using it to work my way through some collections like this, for better or for worse. It worked well for Roth, where the connections between the books were more thematic than anything. It also worked surprisingly well for the Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake, which I read one per summer, 2014–2016; I actually really missed having one to work through this past summer. I started reading Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, I think in 2016, but then didn’t quite get back to last year, and at this point I’m thinking maybe I should just read all three in a row, when I get back around to tackling them again.

*** – Which here I want to point out something about how Roth’s writing really isn’t this literary/literarily difficult thing, with passages really getting in deep to the shit of life, getting visceral, and how I wonder how much distance is there, at the end of the day, between King’s endless, italicized internal thoughts, and some of Roth’s close third-person monologue-like literary camera work, like some of Les’s sequences; but then I’m also not sur I want to go there, exactly, either. So.

Author: Darby

...is, or has described himself variously as, a reader, a litblogger, a critic, a design student, a designer, a developer, a fan of typewriters, a mediocre videogamer, an amateur painter, a dayjob holder, a guy, your new BFF.

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