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What did you do during the impeachment? I spent the summer of 1998 fact-checking an unstoppable torrent of opinion columns explaining, applauding, condemning, and otherwise exegetically revealing the contents of the Starr report. It was a mind-numbing immersion into the bizarre world of pundits and punditry at a time when the uptick in opinion-mongering charted a curve that made the overheated stock markets look flat by comparison.

I spent that summer in front of a Nexis screen in a smoke-filled bullpen, occasionally looking up to watch waves of heat rise up from the boiling tar roofs, to watch the occasional tugboat churn up the murky Hudson beyond. Two years later I still can’t bring myself to consider the effect of the Clinton scandal beyond the lingering trauma felt by my lowly fraternity of editorial monkeys charged with the mop-and-bucket work of our keepers.

The summer of blowjobs and subcommittee hearings and wall-to-wall cable news forms the very visible backdrop to Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. The title itself refers to the dollop of spooge that calcified the case against the president. Like a lot of Americans, Roth apparently spent that summer alternatively glued to and horrified by the proceedings, like the audience of a highlight reel of air-show mishaps. Here’s Roth on the summer of 1998:

It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn’t stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one’s children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered “Why are we so crazy?,” when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton.

Rather than simply retell the Clinton story, Roth conjures his own witch hunt, one that is all the more frightening for its pettiness. The novel centers around Coleman Silk, a classics professor and dean of Athena College, a leafy, sedate academic backwater that Silk has single-handedly transformed into an elite institution. The novel opens with Silk two years into his involuntary retirement. Silk was hounded out of the college because of a single offhand remark: Addressing his class about two students who had yet to attend a seminar, Silk asked, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” The “spooks” in question turned out to be black. The inevitable charges were brought and shepherded by a faculty member with a grudge against Silk.

Roth’s customary doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, tells Silk’s tale. In fact, Silk comes banging on Zuckerman’s door, just after his once-vital wife has died from—Silk believes—complications arising from Silk’s pillorying, demanding that Zuckerman write the story of Silk’s disgrace and humiliation, insisting, like some peasant supplicant to a warlord, that Zuckerman be the instrument of Silk’s revenge. I mention this not just in passing, but because the way Zuckerman is drawn into Silk’s defense mimics the way Roth anoints himself to defend Clinton against his enemies: “I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other,” Zuckerman enthuses, “and bearing the legend a human being lives here.”

Roth’s narrative pose is not merely a defense of Silk (and, by extension, of Clinton) but of the broader idea that people lead messy, complicated lives. To see a human being through a single lens, to define him through a single byte of information, is not only to misunderstand him but to do violence to him. In The Unwanted Gaze, Jeffrey Rosen suggests that our right to privacy is our right not to be “misjudged by strangers who don’t have time to put our informal speech and conduct into a broader context.”

Yet even this defense collapses when it is revealed that Silk is a black man passing as white—a fact unknown even to his late wife and children. As we learn more about Silk’s life—his teenage years spent boxing in Newark, his relationship with his demanding father, his years spent tasting bohemian sexual freedom in the Greenwich Village of the ’50s—it becomes clear that Silk has rendered himself unknowable through the perpetration of this single, shining lie.

As in the Clinton affair, here there are lies within secrets and secrets within lies. Characters cry out at once to be denounced, to be pitied, to be understood. Perhaps Silk is the victim of some grave injustice—but he scorned his family in his quest to scale the heights. Silk’s new lover, Faunia Farley, ran away from home at age 14 to escape her stepfather’s sexual predations, but she also lost her two children in a fire she probably could have prevented had she not been orally servicing a man in a truck just outside her trailer.

The narrative races, alternately in possession of the innermost recesses of each major character’s mind. Roth shuffles this multiplicity of voices with clarity and grace, despite a few false notes: Faunia’s ex-husband, Les, with his dropped Gs and NamVet stereotypes—booze, violence, post-traumatic stress disorder—seems canned. Silk’s sister, Ernestine, who appears in the book’s final chapter, spouts anti-PC platitudes (“Today the student asserts his incapacity as a privilege,” “There are no more criteria…only opinions”) that sound lifted from a particularly uncritical review of The Closing of the American Mind. Despite these lapses, it’s worth pointing out that Roth is a masterful novelist in the nuts-and-bolts sense. He is not merely funny, though he is that; he’s not just a thinker of big thoughts, though he is that; he is not simply a passable ventriloquist, though he clearly is that, too.

What is most impressive about The Human Stain, though, is how simply and elegantly the story unfolds, without resorting to reductive symmetries. It seems at first a simple irony that Silk, a black man, should be falsely charged with racism. However, the consequences of Silk’s deception—or betrayal or whatever you wish to call it—are deeper than that. Silk’s children, especially his daughter and youngest son, are damaged, broken, incapable of establishing lives and identities for themselves. Who’s to say what their lives would have been like had Silk stuck to the straight and narrow? Though Silk is the hero of the piece, in many respects there’s not much to commend him. Here’s the scene just after Silk coolly informs his mother of his plans to marry a white woman and break off from his skin, his family, and his past:

He was murdering her. You don’t have to murder your father. The world will do that for you. There are plenty of forces out to get your father. The world will take care of him, as it had indeed taken care of Mr. Silk. Who there is to murder is the mother, and that’s what he saw he was doing to her, the boy who’d been loved as he’d been loved by this woman. Murdering her on behalf of his exhilarating notion of freedom! It would have been much easier without her. But only through this test can he be the man he has chosen to be, unalterably separated from what he was handed at birth, free to struggle at being free like any human would wish to be free.

At bottom, this is as much a novel about consequences as it is a study in human complexity. Silk made his decision to become a white man, and in doing so he cut himself off from his family, his children from their heritage; a decision that he made by and for himself has, like any decision, repercussions that could not have been anticipated.

At the same time, it’s hard to see The Human Stain as an essentially cynical or pessimistic work. Here are Faunia’s thoughts while spending a romantic night with Silk:

This is standing in front of your lover naked with the lights on and moving. Okay, you’re a man, and you’re not in your prime, and you’ve got a life and I’m not part of it, but I know what’s here. You come to me as a man. So I come to you. That’s a lot. But that’s all it is. I’m dancing in front of you naked with the lights on, and you’re naked too, and all the other stuff doesn’t matter. It’s the simplest thing we’ve ever done—it’s it. Don’t fuck it up by thinking it’s more than this.

Though Roth’s prose is invigorated by rage and at times tainted by self-righteousness, this is not a wrathful book. Roth aims daggers at moralists, and therefore at himself, but he is neither self-justifying nor self-abnegating. The Human Stain is a morass of big contradictory ideas servicing one very small idea: that we are redeemed by our tenderness and our humanity—because if we are not, then nothing redeems us. CP