THE HUMAN STAIN
A multi-layered, powerful and relevant observation of modern American society
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BY PHILIP ROTH
Philip Roth sadly passed away in 2018 and so it seemed a good time to read one of his most relevant and important books, The Human Stain.
Coleman Silk is an eminent classics professor and Dean at a small college in Massachusetts, who resigns after he is accused of making a racially inappropriate comment. However this is just the beginning of the downfall of this previous inspirational academic. His life unravels as he takes up a relationship with a tragic younger woman after the death of his wife, which alienates his children and consequentially results in further humiliation. All this is set in 1998, against the backdrop of Clinton’s sordid liaison with Monica Lewinsky. Silk has asked Nathan Zuckerman, a local reclusive novelist, to write his story. In doing so, Zuckerman discovers a further secret about Silk, which seems amazing in its deceit.
There are so many different parts to this book, whether it be political correctness, racial discrimination, post Vietnam, the perceived dumbing down of education and identity. This provided lots of scope for discussion and interestingly raised the question as to which of the many themes played out was the most important to Roth's storyline? Or were they all vital to Coleman's story.
This is not a page-turner, but it is a powerful and relevant observation of this period of American social change, which gave us all an amazing insight into the downfall of trying to conform and escape one’s identity.
The Human Stain was also made into a less successful film in 2003 with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.
There are many other Roth novels to choose from and good alternative recommendations would include American Pastoral (Pulitzer Prize Winner 1997), Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye Columbus.
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