The book opens in New England in the late 1990s-at a time when the country was stunned by a Presidential scandal and when conservatism, morality and political-correctness were beginning to take hold of the nation’s consciousness. Roth weaves this narrative of our recent history into his plot to give the reader a sense of context. The protagonist of the novel, Coleman Silk, is a revered classics professor and former dean nearing retirement at a fictional college. Silk is known for single-handedly overhauling the school’s faculty and course content when he became Dean, and is respected for being a Jew who managed to rise so high in academic circles. One unremarkable day, Silk unintentionally makes a comment in a class that he is teaching that two of his black students interpret to be a racial slur. This small, accidental incident prompts a series of events that cumulate to destroy his entire life. Roth richly and realistically describes his characters’ thoughts and feelings; I was amazed that he was able to write such convincing streams-of-consciousness for so many different types of people. I was able to sympathize with each character, despite the despicable or unsavory things he or she had done. I was so fascinated with Roth’s portrayal of the characters that I would read, intently and without stopping, for two hours or more.
My only gripe is that there were times when I didn’t trust the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman. At one point he practically admits to making up part of the story, or rather, guessing certain thoughts and feelings of a few of the characters. I spent a lot of time backtracking and thinking over the pages I had already read, wondering if it was plausible for Zuckerman to know this or that, or if he was just guessing at the characters’ emotions. I know now that Zuckerman is a recurring narrator in Roth’s novels and that he often plays a more active role than that of narrator, but that lack of confidence still made me uncomfortable.
Even with the one complaint factored in, I think this is too complicated and complex of a book to judge so quickly. One feels the urge to speed through it because of the plot, but it really should be savored and mulled over. It’s a book that would be satisfying to read in a literature class, with all the symbolism and imagery Roth tucks away into his prose. Bottom line: I think it’s a complex, well-written book, in which Roth deftly unravels his characters’ brains to reveal their thoughts, motivations and desires in a realistic, compelling manner. It is a book that not only tells a captivating story, but gives us a piece of modern history and culture as well.