“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth – How accidentally a destiny is made.


This is my review of The Human Stain  by Philip Roth

Original and astonishingly articulate, “The Human Stain” forms the third part of Philip Roth’s trilogy of novels exploring major social issues in late 1990s USA.

After a distinguished career as a former Dean and Classics Professor who has chosen to return to classroom teaching at small-town New England Athena College, Coleman Silk falls foul of “political correctness” by describing two black students as “spooks”. He is referring to their ghost-like nature in appearing on his class register but never in person: the powers that be construe his words as racist. The irony of this situation, and the reasons for Coleman’s furious reaction to the charge are gradually revealed.

Proud and impulsive, he storms out rather than wait for the outrage to die down. His anger and isolation only fed by the sudden death of his wife Iris, which he attributes to stress over his treatment, he further scandalises the community by taking up with Faunia, an uneducated college cleaner and farm worker less than half his age. Their common bond seems to be that she too has been society’s victim, although in a very different way.

The narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s favourite alter ego who reappears in other novels, but Roth makes the maximum play with artistic licence, digressing into events and inner thoughts (as when Faunia thinks about why she likes crows so much) which Zuckerman could not possibly know. The device for getting round this is that Silk’s story inspires Zuckerman to go on to research, expand upon and dramatise his whole life in the “The Human Stain” which we are actually reading. This goes far beyond Coleman’s emotional demand that, as a professional writer, Zuckerman should write about the monumental injustice which has been done to him.

Roth makes much of the parallel between Coleman’s plight and what he sees as the inordinate and hypocritical uproar over Clinton’s dalliance with Monika Lewinsky. An additional apparent inspiration was the experience of an academic friend, Melvin Tumin, who was subject to a “witch hunt” but was ultimately found blameless for the alleged use of racial language as regards two African American students. The plot is also a vehicle for exploring practical difficulties of gaining racial equality. An ambitious individual bent on achieving “The American Dream” may choose the controversial path of “passing himself off” as white, but this may be at the price of cutting oneself off from blood relatives and denying one’s children a sense of their true heritage.

Meanwhile, Faunia’s violent, vengeful stalker ex-husband Les Farley serves to reveal the problem of the traumatised veterans unable to adapt to “normal” life after the living nightmare of Vietnam. Roth shows his skill in arousing a sense of sympathy for almost everyone in this book, even the French academic troublemaker Delphine Roux who pays lip service to what Coleman (and probably Roth) sees as phoney literary “deconstructionism”. Perhaps, though, there is just a tinge of the flaw of subjective anti-feminism and academic conservatism in Roth when it comes to writing about Delphine.

Roth’s writing sometimes reaches such a peak of broiling intensity, that one has to take a pause to recover, and his tendency to examine causes and motives from every conceivable angle sometimes seems obsessive. Some of the quieter passages have the deepest impact, as when Zuckermann, who has taken refuge from the “entanglement” with his “turbulent” past life in a two-room cabin by a small pond with a patient blue heron in the Madamska mountains, meditates on how hard it has proved to adapt to “radical seclusion” and how easily he has made a friend of Coleman and let “all the world’s malice” come back “rushing in”.

Sadly, watching the film of the book years ago deterred me from reading it, because I could not get over the problem that actor Anthony Hopkins did not “look the part” of Coleman Silk. Having at last read it for a book group, I shall now make a point of going back to the first two parts of the trilogy involving a different set of characters and dilemmas: American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998).

“Sing buried sing” by Jesmyn Ward

This is my review of “Sing Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward.

This imaginative and unconventional novel links the experiences of two young black boys who suffer ingrained racial prejudice, two generations apart, in the US state of Mississippi. In the opening chapter, thirteen-year-old Jojo tries to prove he is becoming a man by helping “Pop”, his black grandfather, to slaughter and skin a goat. The explicit, unflinching description of this is a foretaste of what is to come. Jojo’s main concern is to care for his little sister Kayla, since his mother Leonie is neglectful between working long hours and “snorting crushed pills”, with his white father Michael is serving time in Parchman. This is a penitentiary in real life, notorious for its harsh treatment of black prisoners as farm labourers. The second boy, Richie, sent to Parchman when less than ten years old, is at first protected to some extent by “Pop” when also imprisoned there in his youth.

The bleakness of the accumulated circumstances, together with the tendency of two main characters to vomit as nauseam, came close to putting me off reading this, but I was drawn in by Jojo’s appealing character and the relationships between the family members. When the point of view switches to Leonie, she triggers more sympathy than one might expect, proving to be an immature mother infatuated with her partner Michael, rather than inherently evil, trapped in the vicious circle of wanting to love her children but not knowing how to show it, particularly since Jojo and Kayla have formed such a tight bond which excludes her. She is in fact traumatised, still grieving for her brother who was murdered in a racist attack.

I appreciate that the use of a first person narrative for Jojo, Leonie and Richie creates an authentic sense of immediacy and transports us directly into their thoughts, but I agree with reviewers who argue that too often their southern idioms interwoven with some vivid, quirky descriptions slip into the articulate, literary style of the author herself, which does not ring true in the context.

The theme is sufficiently powerful not to require the devices of magical realism and the ghosts which increasingly haunt the novel. Again, I can see that the title, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” reflects Jesmyn Ward’s desire to show how the suffering of past generations of slaves and exploited black Americans still burdens the present, with all its ongoing injustice, but this does not require the inclusion of ghosts, unless perhaps it is to indicate enduring superstitions.

Jesmyn Ward has a talent for creating a strong sense of place : “some kind of bad earth. Like the bayou when the water runs out after the moon or it ain’t rained and the muddy bottom, where the crawfish burrow, turns black and gummy under the blue sky and stinks”. Her lyrical prose has been compared to William Faulkner’s, but her style tends to become overblown, particularly towards the end of the book which seemed to me to run off the rails somewhat, with a rather contrived, mawkish ending. To admire this novel without major reservations, I think one has to believe in ghosts which can only be seen by those with psychic powers.

“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper


This is my review of Force of Nature by Jane Harper.

When Alice Russell fails to return from a corporate retreat involving a team-building exercise in the remote Australian Giralang Ranges with their sinister recent history as the haunt of a serial killer, Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper naturally assume a link with their undercover work to persuade Alice to obtain information which will incriminate her employers at BaileyTennants, a family firm suspected of long-term money laundering. As the story develops, alternating between the search for Alice and the flashbacks revealing the chain of events from the start of the four day retreat, it becomes clear that at least four of her work colleagues have a clear motive for killing her. Another possibility is of course the emergence of a new copy-cat serial killer. Or has Alice simply seized the opportunity to go AWOL for a whileas the least-worst option?

As in “The Dry” which made the author’s name on the bestseller list, Jane Harper sustains her talent for writing psychological thrillers, keeping a tight control on her material to drip-feed dramatic events and clues, and developing her characters in-depth as she ramps up the tension, exploiting to the full with a strong sense of place the “force of nature” in the menace of the wild rain-swept landscape, in which one tree is indistinguishable from another, paths peter out or offer confusing choices, carpet pythons lurk in rotten trunks, and communication with the outside world is abruptly cut off, the sole mobile phone smuggled onto the retreat providing too weak and fitful a signal to provide more than the odd tantalising fragment of contact.

In a kind of adult Aussie take on “Lord of the Flies”, the force of nature is also revealed in the rapid disintegration of the façade of civilised behaviour between the five women once they are transplanted from their structured work environment to the wilderness where basic survival becomes the main issue. There are parallels of course, between the way people bully and manipulate each other in their “normal” everyday world and the more physically brutal and critical way they may compete for vital scarce resources in situations of physical extremity. As one character observes, “It wasn’t any one thing that went wrong, it was a hundred little things.” Each inexorably adds to the ultimate crisis.

Although, when one reflects on it afterwards, not much happens, and the power of the tale depends on how the facts are revealed, the novel proved a gripping read at the time. Any repetition can be justified as reinforcing the oppressive situation in which the team of five women find themselves, and I also liked the way that the author knows when to stop, having given us the denouement but leaving the details of the outcomes to our imagination.

Universal harvester: chaffing over the grain

This is my review of  Universal Harvester  by John Darnielle

I never came to understand why this novel is called “Universal Harvester”. It is well-written and original, but with its unresolved ambiguities, lack of development of the key characters apart from motherless Jeremy Heldt and his bereaved father, and rather limp conclusion, it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied.

Part One of this short novel is very promising, a page-turning psychological drama  which subtly develops a sense of unease, even menace in a small Iowa town where nothing much happens and men pass the time of day talking about fishing. In danger of sinking into a rut at the local video rental store (VHS tapes because it’s the end of the 1990s),  Jeremy Heldt begins  to receive complaints about videos with “something” on them, and then becomes obsessed himself by  the unsettling shots someone has managed to insert into certain films.  The spare prose is effective not only in its vivid evocation of rural/ small-town life, creating a strong sense of place, but also in the portrayal of the relationship between Jeremy and his father as they try to provide mutual support and respect each other’s grief.

The second part dispels  the illusion that this is  working up to being a tale of horror or detective thriller, rupturing the narrative drive with an abrupt switch back to the 1960s with the focus on a different set of characters. The style become more “exposition” rather than reveal what goes on in Irene Sample’s mind to cause a dramatic  and life-changing action on her part.

Although it seemed clear who was responsible for altering the tapes, in the last two sections, my frustration grew over  the unresolved ambiguities as to why and exactly how this was being done, including what induced, even forced, others to take part as  “actors”.  The author begins the acknowledgements with:  “This is a book  largely about mothers”.  The only reason I can see for inclusion in Part Four of  the Pratts, who come to rent the house where the tapes were altered  some years previously,  is to introduce a “normal happy family” of comfortably off Californians to provide a contrast with those rendered dysfunctional by the loss of a mother. With perhaps rather thoughtless complacency, the Pratts display the confidence and resilience borne of good fortune that is only mildly or temporarily thrown off course by a troubling sense of other people’s distress. They also demonstrate how differently, partially and inaccurately strangers may view a place compared with previous occupiers unknown to them.

Having just read William Faulkner’s “As I lay dying”, I noted some similarities in the frequent focus on small details rather than the main issues, which one often has to deduce,  in the switches in viewpoint and in the idea that mystery of the altered tapes, even the effects of losing one’s mother, are not the essence of the story.  This seems to lie in the nature of being, in which, for instance, people may cease to exist for us when they move out of our lives,  or the difficulty of knowing what went on in a house or place before one lived there.

“She wondered what had gone missing from Iowa before she ever got there. There is no way of knowing. That’s what pictures are for, after all: to stand in place of the things that weren’t left behind, to bear witness to people and places and things that might otherwise go unnoticed”.

As I lay dying – challenging read after which “ordinary” novels seems lacking

This is my review of As I lay dying by William Faulkner.

In the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, based on Faulkner’s deep knowledge of Mississippi in the Great Depression, wife and mother Addie Bundren lies dying for only the first fifth of this modern classic, to the hypnotic mantra of sawing as her son Cash painstakingly constructs a coffin within sight and sound of her bed . The rest of this short but dense novel is taken up with the fateful Odyssey borne of Anse Bundren’s stubborn to the point of foolish insistence on taking his wife’s body on a ramshackle cart over routes where road bridges have been swept away in the floods, to “lie with her own people” in the town of Jefferson. As it turns out, both he and his daughter Dewey Dell have an ulterior motive for getting there at all costs.

To achieve this, Anse needs the assistance of his children, in particular his three very different adult sons. It is a continual puzzle as to how this pathetic, incompetent man manages to use his wheedling guile to hold them to their thankless task, which brings each of them long-term suffering of a different kind. Only Anse comes out of the situation with any advantage – clearly, the cynical Faulkner did not believe that people get their just desserts. Yet there is a bond between the often hostile brothers, as shown by the risks taken to salvage Cash’s precious carpentry tools from the river-bed.

The unrelenting, macabre and bleak theme is rendered tolerable, even gripping by the remarkable style, the wry black humour and quirky Southern speech. The book requires intense concentration with its multiple points of view, each chapter representing by turns the thoughts of a different character, expressed in a stream of consciousness that is part literary, even poetical, part pithy, part convoluted colloquial dialogue. On occasion Faulkner even invents words for want of an existing one that suits – “uninferant”, “uncurried”.

It helps to know that Faulkner disliked the “normal” style of straightforward explanation, preferring to leave major events merely implied or hinted at, rather in the style of the film scripts which he took to writing in later life. He enraged Ernest Hemingway by observing that he “lacked courage”, by which he meant, not in a physical sense, but as regards being prepared to “get out on a limb…risk bad taste…overwriting….dullness.” Faulkner himself took all these risks in spades in this novel. Apparently written in only six weeks, it has a raw, unedited feel at times, as may have been his intention. It is debatable whether this is a strength or weakness. I found myself rereading some passages because they are so stunning, others in a vain and tantalising attempt to make sense of them. Sometimes, the brilliance seems to slip into pretentiousness or tedium.

Some of the most powerful passages describe Jewel Bundren’s sadistic passion for his “pusset-gutted bastard” of a horse. “Enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings”, Jewel “moves with the flashing limberness of a snake….for an instant… whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-limber….Then Jewel is on the horse’s back. He flows upward in a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body midair shaped to the horse” and so on. Later we see the horse “dancing and swirling like the shape of its mane and tail and the splotches of its coat had nothing whatever to do with the flesh-and-bone inside them”.

There is humour in Darl Bundren’s acutely droll assessment of his father. “He got sick once from working in the sun when he was twenty-two years old, and he tells people that if ever he sweats, he will die. I suppose he believes it.”

Irony marks the portrayal of the preacher who rushes to Addie’s bedside in an attempt to pre-empt any deathbed confession with one of his own, complacently concludes that his efforts in battling through the floodwaters are sufficient to obtain God’s mercy, “He will accept the will for the deed” and enters the “house of bereavement” with a mere sanctimonious “God’s grace upon this house”.

There is menace, not to mention an indictment of Anse’s inappropriate behaviour, in the continual references to the ever-present vultures which obsess Addie’s youngest son Vardaman: “Now there are seven of them, on little tall black circles”.

At one extreme, Vardaman and his teen-age sister Dewey Dell seem handicapped in their ability to communicate by their limited speech. At the other, the sensitive, perceptive Darl is often used as the mouthpiece for the author’s most sophisticated verbal pyrothechnics. Yet even the tortuous southern speech can be surprisingly telling as when bemused neighbour Tull observes, “The Lord aimed for…a fellow… to do and not to spend too much time thinking, because his brain is like a piece of machinery: it won’t stand a whole lot of racking”. Likewise, Cash’s final observation, “ But I ain’t so sho that ere a man has the right to say what is crazy and what aint. It’s like there was a fellow in every man that done a-past the sanity or insanity, that watches the sane and the insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment”.

There are also deeper levels of meaning to this book about, say, Addie role as a wife and mother, or the language of religion used to as a form of social control in a deferential rural community which defy inclusion in a short review without “spoilers”.