"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On "Stoner" by John Williams

In response to reading Stoner by John Williams, at the suggestion of several people and

Well, I have "seriously read" Stoner and I have disliked it thoroughly.  The prose is clear and forceful, and the realism is effective.  However, the plot and characters are largely clichés, and the novel is an empty vessel—a self-justifying, spiritless, Godless, sentimental emptiness that presents the emotion of love of literature as having absolutely nothing to do with the content of that literature, as if what Shakespeare and Donne were making of their classical and medieval influences were nothing but objects to be studied in the light of those influences, as if the actual subjects of their works were irrelevant to the academic’s pleasure in reading and teaching them. 

To me the book reads like Samuel Beckett in ivy and tweeds, giving the picture of a man cut off from any possibility of active human kindness by a solipsism as thick and immovable—despite his devotion to teaching and his passionate love affair—as the clay from which he has sprung.  The novel’s world view is utterly depressing in its depiction of an ultimately meaningless universe that it pretends to fill with a calling without any caller.  The only good thing in the book is the hero’s resistance to the lies and injustice of the villain (whose behavior is an allegory of affirmative action and/or feminism at their collegiate work).  But the moral stance of the hero cannot make up for the complete absence of any moral or spiritual foundation to sustain it and therefore remains a mere accident of nothingness being busy about its ultimately meaningless business. 

If the novel has become a fad, that is because the New York Review of Books and New York Times set see in it the complete justification of their own spiritually vacuous lives, in which "literature" substitutes for God, teaching it substitutes for faith, and human discourse is a matter of nothing but noticing nature at work in sex and in words, exactly as if the real works of Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Buber, C.S. Lewis, and Solzhenitsyn never existed and as if a Samuel Beckett character who should accidentally fall in love had spoken the final word on man.

The author has used his considerable talent to produce a convincing but deluded picture of unilluminated man caught in the hell of a life of self-centered love experienced as sourceless, goalless, purposeless, and powerless to heal.  The hell of reading it is that the author imagines that the feckless existential emptiness of his hero might be redeemed by the mere fact of his falling in love with literature while offering no hint of what is in fact lovable about that literature we are told the hero loves.  Hence, the novel is an exercise in subtle but exasperating sentimentality. 


Anonymous MW said...

I learned the hard way never to buy a rock and roll album on the basis of a reviewer wrote in the Phoenix or the Rolling Stone: I offer Mott the Hoople as prime example of wasted money (someone out there will disagree, of course). So too about books. I gave up reading the NYTBR because the reviews were, by and larger, about the reviewers. “Let me talk about this so I can talk about me." That much said, knowing that what you wrote about Stoner is as much about Stoner and what I am about to say is about me, I proceed. I did read Stoner, some years ago. Whether clearly or not, I remember having three impressions. First, there was something unseemly in how Stoner left home and his bitter, broken parents; Stoner did have his own life to lead, he did it at his parent’s expense. Second, in the matter of his wife, I don’t think I’ve ever read such an accurate portrayal of a cold lover and, moreso, how one could become attracted to and willingly trapped by such a fiend. I actually recall this portrayal as having been worth the price of having to read the book, the only caveat being I wanted to see him work his way out of it, which he really didn’t. Third, that Stoner was a man convinced of and supplicant to a life of being used, hurt, and betrayed; his tormentors could see how easy he was to be had; he practically wore a sign saying ‘Kick me!’ That all he was, was kicked, makes the written work more a case study than a novel. Stoner might have been someone special if the author had stopped trying to make a point with him (not a very good point – I agree totally with you - and just let the Stoner breathe… Stoner’s love of books was a great discovery, but what he chose to do with books, which was to retreat into them rather than be enlarged by them – was a failure. I was relieved to see Stoner die just so the author could stop kicking him around.

9:37 AM  

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