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Roth's Cause

Philip Roth is trying to tell us something in his second artistic wind, a trilogy that binds the American dream to our recent national nightmares.

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Secrets and lies: Roth's America pits national character flaws against the promise of self-invention.  

The Human Stain
BY PHILIP ROTH
Houghton Mifflin; 368 pages; $26

By now, everyone knows the shocking secret that lies at the heart of Philip Roth's new novel, pointedly set during the Clinton impeachment trial: His protagonist, Coleman Silk, a distinguished Jewish classics professor whose career is ruined by an absurd accusation of racism (he uses the word "spooks" in class, but he's talking about ghosts), turns out to be a black man who's spent his life "passing." Terrible secrets, in fact, lie at the heart of the two other novels that make up what Roth is calling his "thematic trilogy" about the decline of post-World War II America. In the McCarthy-era I Married a Communist (1998), a popular leftist radio star once murdered an anti-Semitic tormentor; in American Pastoral (1997), a comfortably assimilated Jew has a daughter who, in the sixties, becomes a murderous antiwar terrorist. All three books, in other words, portray men who grasp at the American dream -- who want, as a character in American Pastoral puts it, to "belong like everybody else to the United States of America" -- only to run into the American nightmare, "the real American crazy shit": Puritanism, bigotry, violence.

The "theme" of Roth's "thematic trilogy" seems to be how the failure to resolve the "complication" and "contradiction" innate in the American character led to the collapse of postwar American society. "I sometimes think that more has changed since 1945 than in all the years of history there have ever been," someone laments in American Pastoral. "I don't know what to make of the end of so many things."

Neither, I think, does Roth. With each successive novel in the trilogy, the author has been increasingly content to portray our national ills without figuring out why it all went wrong -- why, exactly, the nightmare seems inextricable from the dream. Not coincidentally, each novel has also taken Roth ever further from the turf (Newark-New York, Jewish-American anxiety) that he's made so thoroughly his own in fictions from the hilarious Goodbye, Columbus to the exhilaratingly brilliant and complex Operation Shylock. For all its vast Whitmanesque scope, the trilogy's first two parts really come alive only in their nostalgic descriptions of the old neighborhood. American Pastoral may not have been any more successful than its hero in understanding the Vietnam decade, but its flashbacks to a prewar Newark of hardworking Jewish immigrants were so deeply affecting that you ended up feeling as if you, too, had lost something important when the sixties exploded. (Assuming you identified with the Jewish protagonist and not, say, the Newark rioters of 1967 who attack his glove factory.) The Newark flashbacks in I Married a Communist were similarly effective, but the cartoonish characters and the self-indulgent venting -- there's a four-page diatribe about Nixon's funeral -- made you think the author was using his art to work off private resentments both old and new.

Roth strays the furthest from the old neighborhood in the new novel. Although fluent and superbly narrated -- you expect, and get, nothing less from Roth -- The Human Stain addresses a grab bag of American ills (racism, mindless political correctness, the still-unfinished business of Vietnam) that don't necessarily hang together -- and for which the Jewish-American experience can't function as a useful artistic metaphor. Roth turns to the black experience, with mixed results. The Human Stain is meant, first and foremost, to be a big novel about the tragic ironies of American racism. Interwoven with the account of Coleman Silk's academic fall is the story of his improbable ascent -- a riveting tale of how the brilliant young Silk's refusal to accept the casual, pervasive racism of prewar American culture ("I couldn't believe your grades were as high as they were," a high-school teacher blandly tells his brother) led him to pass. That decision affords him undreamed-of opportunities but crushes his abandoned family. "Coleman," his sister bitterly tells Roth's narrative doppelgänger, Nathan Zuckerman, "couldn't wait to go through civil rights to get to his human rights."

The story of Silk's self-transformation is filled, like American Pastoral, with meticulously etched local detail: Newark in the thirties, Greenwich Village after the war ("the great American era of aphrodisiacal legs"). And yet when Roth turns from places to people, the narrative starts feeling generic. There's something too polite, something learned rather than lived, in the descriptions of Silk's early years -- the Shakespeare-quoting railroad-porter father, the righteous older brother, his indulgent, indomitable mother. You can't help wondering if Roth is being incredibly careful because he's ventriloquizing blacks instead of Jews; he never does get inside Silk's head. Superficial asides ("He did love secrets") end up bearing too much motivational weight.

There's a second novel here: a satire of the p.c. "sensitivity" that brings Silk down. Roth's send-up of Silk's academic nemesis, a hypocritically racist, Kundera-obsessed comp-lit professor named Delphine Roux, is a lot of fun, even if it does feel airlifted into The Human Stain from a (circa 1994) Christopher Buckley novel. (Roux frets hilariously about the wording of the personal she's placing in The New York Review of Books; she craves "sex with metaphysics.") There's a third major narrative here as well: After losing his career and his wife to the "spooks" affair, the 71-year-old Silk starts seeing an illiterate janitor half his age who's being stalked by her ex, a deranged Vietnam vet. Their affair explodes into yet another scandal.

You can see how the tragedy is meant to be connected to the farce. "I was using the word spooks," Silk wearily protests, "in its customary and primary meaning: 'spook' as a specter or a ghost." He's whitewashed himself so thoroughly in order to "pass" that the "secondary" meaning never even crossed his mind -- as it would have a real Jew's. And you know that Delphine, who's also deliberately abandoned her "stifling" family traditions, is meant as a comic double of Silk himself. But in the end, such connections feel abstract rather than organic; they can't bind together this book's wildly divergent plots, voices, and ambitions. Except at the mechanical level of plot, racism isn't linked, in a profound and illuminating way, to academic decline or Vietnam or Clinton's impeachment. They're just a bunch of American disasters that Roth wants to squeeze into the final volume of his trilogy.

"I just wanted these historical debacles to enter into and pass through the characters," Roth recently said, rebuffing an interviewer's attempt to see in the trilogy a "report card" on America. "I just wanted to find out what that would be like." I'm not sure that's good enough. From your major novelists, you want more than an authorial shrug, more than The Human Stain's weary conclusion that "there really is no bottom to what is not known" about people (and cultures). Roth's trilogy vividly, sometimes luridly, paints the American dream and the American nightmare; but the reason why they're part of the same canvas still remains a secret.


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