The Troves of Academe
It's no coincidence that Prose and Roth, coming to college novels at the same time, fail to portray anyone as healthy or admirable, living a life we should envy and respect. Prose, whose "Scent of a Woman's Ink" essay in Harper's two years ago smartly challenged tropistic ways of reading male and female novelists and their subjects, undoubtedly recognizes the campus novel as an equal-opportunity odor du jour, attracting everyone from Coetzee to Jane Smiley. One can emulate her guerrilla tactic of juxtaposing male and female writers--Updike and Mary Gaitskill formed a particularly inspired pair--to support her notion that an adroit woman novelist may well tackle a subject more boldly, crisply, precisely than the male novelist exploring it through a counterlife.
Coleman Silk, despite his unusual ethnicity for a Roth protagonist, eventually becomes one more spokesman for a certain psyche's life as a man, however entertaining and on target the rants of this and all seasons. While some critics have taken The Human Stain as volume three of a trilogy begun with American Pastoral and I Married a Communist--the main reason being that New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani passed on the notion from Roth and the book's publicists in her review--one might as well ask whether the book forms a tetralogy with long-ago Letting Go (and its troubled young Jewish academic at the University of Chicago), or The Breast and The Professor of Desire, in which Professor David Kepesh's transformations were both more and less remarkable than Coleman's.
Regardless, Roth's choices in The Human Stain make Coleman--and Zuckerman as Boswell--less convincing critics of academic hypocrisy than Swenson and the waspish wizard behind him. Prose continues her evolution here from the once remote and redemptionist young novelist, whose earliest books (Judah the Pious; Marie Laveau) arrived like parables at the novelist's ball, to the wickedly observant muralist of tabloid conceits (Bigfoot Dreams), literary envy (Guided Tours of Hell) and many other abundantly alive slices of life. As pointedly reportorial as the more self-anointedly journalistic Tom Wolfe, Prose re-creates the intricate texture of distortion on today's campus by going beyond just the charges against Swenson to marvelously savvy passages about the deceitful dynamics of writing workshops, the abashed stealth with which professors recoil at the pierced faces of students and the glib flexibility of the campus tour for prospectives, in which every college flaw turns into an asset, smallness into "intimacy."
Swenson faces as much damage as Coleman, but because Prose wisely denies him a soapbox on every headline from Monica to the traumas of Vietnam service, both his transparent justifications and those Prose leaves open for fair assessment come as a surprise.
Swenson's anger, to be sure, ends up trained on his colleagues and dean, all too ready to play "by the rules of this cult" to which they've surrendered their lives, to play scripted roles from the top down when the time comes to drum him out as a "predatory harasser." But at the same time, Swenson responds by looking inward while Coleman, eager for an end to "significance," settles for the liberatingly nonverbal obsession with Faunia, leaving it to Zuckerman, more or less, to handle the meaning of it all. Swenson's attempt to understand his respect for Angela's novel, to confront the "erotics of teaching" and "the dangers of starting to see one's student as a real person," all take him into neighborhoods of truth and falsehood Coleman never enters. In the end, Swenson, unlike Coleman, feels sorry for many things, among them wrecking his career and marriage. He is, however, most "extremely sorry for having spent twenty years of his one and only life, twenty years he will never get back, among people he can't talk to, men and women to whom he can't even tell the simple truth." Unlike Coleman, Swenson knows that he's the victim of more than bad trends, bad breaks, too much testosterone. He's learned something about the place where he spent his life, while Coleman, one suspects, would take back his deanship in a flash if he could keep his cleaning lady on the side.
Intricacies of characterization aside, it's no small news that two of our sharpest, most sophisticated culture critics and novelists indict the liberal arts college as a gorgeously landscaped prison, a dysfunctional refugee camp for lost intellectuals, a Kafka neighborhood with Hallmark postcard. A community, thinks Zuckerman, where "simply to make the accusation is to prove it. To hear the allegation is to believe it. No motive for the perpetrator is necessary, no logic or rationale is required. Only a label is required. The label is the motive. The label is the evidence." And all this "in the New England most identified, historically, with the American individualist's resistance to the coercions of a censorious community--Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau come to mind."
Years ago, University of California president Clark Kerr laughingly described a campus executive's three major administrative problems as "sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty." These days, the problems of the liberal arts college are no laughing matter.