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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In The Hands Of A Master

"All that we don't know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing."

I'm reasonably careful with superlatives, but while reading "The Human Stain" by Philip Roth, I felt very much in the hands of a master.

Roth can sometimes be difficult to read and has been widely chastised for his fictional treatment of women. Based on the few interviews I've seen with him, I'm not sure he would be good company. (Something I'll keep in mind when invited to break bread with him.) It was easy putting all that aside reading "The Human Stain"; this book demonstrates why he is among the most revered postwar American writers. When reading a novel, I'm in the habit of writing down phrases or sentences of power, beauty, or intelligence. Here, I copied whole paragraphs.

In addition to Roth's striking use of language, the main story (set in the Clinton years) and the back story (going back to the early 1940s) of Coleman Silk are rich, complex, & believable. For me, Roth has created a fully realized female character in Faunia Farley, Coleman's late-in-life lover. Faunia's tortured and menacing ex-husband Lester is also compelling. I knew for sure I was in the hands of a master when I recognized how effortlessly Roth juxtaposed the story of Coleman's secrets and lies with the inability most of us have discussing race in any meaningful way.

I hope at least one reader of this blog who has already read "The Human Stain" (or someone who does so in the future) will share their impressions of this book with me.

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