Contemporary Literature 47.1 (2006) 114-140
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Plotting the Frames of Subjectivity:
Identity, Death, and Narrative in Philip Roth's The Human Stain
Derek Parker Royal
Most of Philip Roth's novels are concerned with the symbiotic relationship between experience and narrative, or, to quote Nathan Zuckerman in The Counterlife (1986), "the kind of stories people turn life into, the kind of lives that people turn stories into" (111). In what has become known as his American trilogy—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)—Roth continues this fictional trajectory, albeit with significant variations, returning after a decade to his narrative mask of the perennial Zuckerman.1 Zuckerman's position within these texts, at least on the surface, is that of observer of and commentator on other lives, not [End Page 114] his own. Although now impotent, Zuckerman can still flex his imaginative muscle and do so in ways that illustrate an ongoing desire to define his own subject position. In I Married a Communist, the aging narrator recounts his conversations with Murray Ringold, his former high school teacher and brother of the radio star Iron Rinn (Ira Ringold). Ira had been a hero to the young Zuckerman, and as in American Pastoral we see an attempt to understand the self through the process of memory. In contrast to his role in that novel, Zuckerman is not the primary focalizer in I Married a Communist. He shares this narrative task with Murray Ringold, and the structure of the novel is a continual shifting between the two storytellers. In the long passages where Murray's recounting of his brother's life is barely framed, it is easy to forget that Zuckerman is the narrative filter through which these conversations and recollections take place. Indeed, the very notion of Zuckerman as an important "filter" is problematized by the narrator himself. At one point early in the novel, when Nathan is reflecting on his choice to live alone, he halts his reveries to assert: "But my seclusion is not the story here. It is not a story in any way. I came here because I don't want a story any longer. I've had my story" (71). When he quickly lapses right back into his own ego, Nathan again abruptly interrupts himself, declaring, "But the story is Ira's" (72). Such comments may arouse curiosity, but the narrator denies the reader any clearer insight into his present state of mind.
In this second novel of the American trilogy, Zuckerman is more a passive agent than an active participant. No reimaginings or re-creations forge the narrative. Instead, there is the reception of voices. On the threshold of old age, Nathan reflects: "Occasionally now, looking back, I think of my life as one long speech that I've been listening to.... [T]he book of my life is a book of voices. When I ask myself how I arrived at where I am, the answer surprises me: 'Listening'" (222). In this novel, the story is more or less the mimetic recounting of Ira Ringold's life, not the actual act of recounting it. While the narrative structure of American Pastoral reveals just as much about Zuckerman as it does the Swede, I Married a Communist is striking in its refusal to be "about" Zuckerman in any significant way.2 [End Page 115]
The same cannot be said of The Human Stain, arguably the best crafted and most ambitious work in the American trilogy. In this novel, Roth once again returns to the theme of narrated lives, but in ways that are vastly more revealing than those used in the story of Iron Rinn. The structure of The Human Stain is similar to that of American Pastoral: Nathan Zuckerman presents the tragic tale of a uniquely memorable figure while giving readers a glimpse into the assumptions and privileges that constitute storytelling. Put another way, in both novels, Zuckerman's narrative reflects a postmodern reading of identities...