Thursday, March 7, 2019

Book 171: Stoner



"Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized how little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know."

Dates read: August 20-23, 2017

Rating: 9/10

When I was little, I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice, like Sandra Day O'Connor. We're encouraged to dream big like that, to set our sights on the presidency or being a surgeon or designing skyscrapers. The reality, of course, is that most people won't achieve anything like that. We lead smaller lives. Our names never appear in headlines. The older I get, the more I realize that that's okay. It's wonderful to accomplish big things, but what actually brings me happiness is the smaller stuff: playing with my dog, getting a good-night hug and kiss from my husband, laughing with my best friend on the phone. It's the little things that actually make a life.

John Williams' Stoner chronicles a life that most would write off as mediocre. William Stoner is born to subsistence farmers in Missouri, and when he grows up, his parents send him to college to learn about agriculture. Stoner is a decent but unspectacular student until he takes a required English course and he's seized by the love of learning. He abandons his original plan to return home for the academic life, continuing his education and becoming a professor. Along the way he marries Edith, a lovely young woman who turns out to not be a very good wife, they have a daughter, and Stoner gets caught up in academic politics. He writes and publishes one book, and dies without much more in the way of accomplishments.

It's a "small" life: Stoner never really leaves Colombia once he gets there, and never rises to any sort of prominence. He opts out of World War I, his book never makes any waves, his marriage is a disaster (not only do they never love one another, she frequently goes out of her way to spite him and destroy any small measure of contentment he feels), his adored daughter is turned against him and grows up to become an alcoholic, and he permanently alienates the head of his department (preventing any sort of advancement) when he refuses to give his approval to allow a clever but shallow student to progress towards a doctorate. He has one short period of true happiness, an affair with a graduate student, but it doesn't last. He dies in pain, separated from those he loves.

It sounds like a massive downer. It should be a massive downer. But Williams' writing, particularly his characterization of Stoner, creates a portrait that's melancholic but in a way that's poignant rather than outright sad. Stoner has the stoicism that one might expect from a boy born to taciturn farmers...when you grow up expecting to eke a living out of the soil from which your parents struggled to do the same, you don't expect greatness or wild happiness from life. Fundamentally decent and essentially passive, Stoner accepts most of what his life brings with grace. Even his biggest fight, his determination to fail the unworthy student, is more of a refusal to back down from doing what he genuinely believes he should do than an active campaign against the student in question. Stoner is a very rare example of a literary protagonist who is almost entirely reactive rather than proactive.

It's Williams' beautiful characterization of Stoner that makes the novel's one significant flaw (for me, anyways, you might have more) so glaring: Edith is so one-dimensionally villainous. She's given some sympathy at the beginning, when she's no more prepared for the realities of marriage than her young husband. But she gradually progresses to be a vindictive antagonist without any real indication given as to why. When every other character is rendered with emotional honesty, it stands out that Edith is not, and as she is the most significant female character in the book, it's troubling. But not nearly enough to outweigh the merits of Stoner as a whole: it's deftly and elegantly told, in prose that's resonant without ever being flowery, and gives dignity to a kind of person and life that's usually brushed aside without much thought. I really loved this book, and completely understand why it's been rediscovered and celebrated as of late. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Tell me, blog friends...what was your big dream?

One year ago, I read: The Martian (review to come)

Two years ago, I read: Housekeeping

Three years ago, I read: Dead Ever After

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