Monday, May 12, 2003

Literary Nitpicking

Eric Alterman argues that my saying that the whole point of the Human Stain was Bill Clinton's impeachment is wrong, and says that "Both insist that the book is a defense of Clinton. Nothing could be more politically blinkered. The “entire point” of the book is not an argument about Bill Clinton. Its genesis was inspired by Bill Clinton, sure, but it is a work of art independent of any political function."

That's a rather odd view of literature. Sure, it exists as a work of art independent of any political function - but it's silly to argue that it is solely a work of art independent of any political function. I can't imagine anyone seriously making that claim about Roth's Our Gang, or Guernica.

There are three basic things playing out in Roth's book. The first is the backstory of a black man who for years had passed himself off as a Jew. The second is a brief meditation on campus racial and gender politics. The third, and the majority of the novel, is an explicit allegory on the Clinton impeachment mess. The author makes that clear multiple times, explicitly linking events in the book with events in the "real world." On page 2, it reads "1998 … in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism - which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country's security - was succeeded by cocksucking…," rather presciently. Somewhere in the middle of the book there's an extended overheard dialogue discussing Monica Madness as one would a football game.

The short version of the Human Stain is that a man is brought down by an accusation that was on its face ridiculous, and that no one really actually quite believed. Some of his natural allies failed to support him out of fear, and some because they felt he'd abandoned some previously held ideals. Some piled on for envy and revenge, and in one case unrequited (and unrealized) lust.

While they managed to destroy his career, he was finally killed by an insane freeper in the midst of said cocksucking. The blowjob was subsequently used to justify all of the previous allegations in an anonymously circulated email which read "One is left to imagine just how heinous were the crimes that he was determined to hide." The crime was simply that he got a blowjob from a younger lower class woman.

But, it's silly to create this artificial divide between "Art" and the rest of the world. Nick Hornby writes books inspired by music. They aren't just about music, and one wouldn't have had to have heard any of the songs he references to read his books, but it would be wrong to say that they are independent from music. The Human Stain is clearly political. One wouldn't have to know a thing about Monica Madness to enjoy the book, so in that sense it is independent from it. But, it is still about the blowjob - and other things, too.