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Philip Roth, the Human Stain

Roth excels at splicing comedy and rage. An especially sexual splicing — which from the start had me in mind of Sabbath’s Theatre. But then again he’s also one of the finest channelers of rage operating in fiction today. And when he’s not writing full comedy, is also one of the sharpest craftsmen of psychological realism. A serious one. A rare technician of prose joining pain and surprise, the ruthless and the defenceless, the sincere and the performed. The power of human chaos entered through the minds and language of characters with staggering fullness. To reveal all the self-preservations of ego, the smarts of pain and broken love, the shards of identity — in the lawyer, Faunia, Delphine Roux, Farley — whose nightmare is rendered with amazing justification and Hemingway jolts of prose. I loved the youth and energy of the boxing-related chapters, how the sport ignites Coleman’s dormant hate of race/colour awareness. The cutting portrait of pride-afflicted Delphine with her Continental vocab and polished complexities, the complex phony. «She seemed to herself to have subverted herself in the altogether admirable effort to make herself» (p272) in contrast to Coleman. Was her undoing a little too blunt? I loved the early (narrative-late) seed of appropriateness/correctness in the home visit with Steena, the struggle for formality. I love Roth’s concern with genealogy and full family backgrounding — not so much a Jewish concern as a biblical mode — how shall we tell our story? — in the language of our forefathers etc. I especially like — now that I know how to look for them — Roth’s little parallels of character-thought and writing method, his particular focus and devotion to the art: «The task, nothing but the task. At one with the task. Nothing else allowed in.» (p121) (tangential topic: the love of writers for boxing). And of always using characters to express your deepest criticisms of society: «…their shallowness they call lovingness, and the ruthlessness is camouflaged as lost self esteem. The hyperdramatization of the pettiest emotions.» (p147) «All that we don’t know is astonishing.» (p209) «The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?» (p242) And of course there’s Roth the prosemeister, from the super first page to the sustained ambivalent closure of the ending. «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.» (p342) The book is littered with simple-word/complex-idea expressions. «He didn’t so much laugh aloud as nibble at the bait of an out-loud laugh, work up to and around the laugh without quite sinking his teeth in. Close to the hook of dangerous merriment, but not close enough to swallow it.» (p357). It’s not the easiest on the eyes, but certainly deeply rewarding to read — a pleasure that mixes cerebrality with visceral urge. The book does sag in the middle, and occasionally he lays on too many questions, labouring the reader with «By the time I met him, was the secret merely the tincture barely tinting the coloration of the man’s total being or was the totality of his being nothing but a tincture in the shoreless sea of a lifelong secret?» (ref lost) Almost purple, that. Brave, but purplish. Still, a great picture of America.

posted by rino breebaart  # 1:44 pm
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Alternatively, read about it at: The Slow Review or the long blog. Or even Nurture Health

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