John Williams’s Stoner
is an extraordinary novel with an extra ordinary (not extraordinary) hero.
Stoner almost always plays it safe, making predictable, sensible choices. He
studies literature at the University of Missouri and ends up teaching there for
the next 40 years. Even though he teaches the same classes over and over, he
isn’t completely able to articulate to his students what he loves about
literature. He marries badly, has a child to whom he wishes to be closer,
enters into a doomed but beautiful love affair, and writes a failed book.
If the plot sounds a little dull or unoriginal to you, I believe that was
Williams’s intention. Williams created in Stoner a character who demands no
attention from the students who pass him in the quads of Jesse Hall. But as
readers we’re privy to the quiet desperation (as Thoreau put it) that is the
result of everything Stoner wants being just out of his reach. Although he
hides it from the world, we see and feel
the constant disappointment he experiences; and to make it all the more frustrating—and
all the more real—these disappointments are due sometimes to his own safe
choices and sometimes to circumstances that are out of his control.
But where other characters in other novels by other authors
might respond to a lifetime of incessant disappointment with suicide, Stoner
takes up Hamlet’s question, wondering if his life is worth living. But he goes
beyond simply asking the question of himself; he realizes the question is
general to all mankind, and more importantly it doesn’t necessarily spring from
dire and immediate circumstances:
It came, he believed, from the accretion
of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance, and from what he
had come to understand of them. He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility
that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this kind of
knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know
this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did
Williams’s prose is beautiful in the most subtle, restrained way. It’s
quite remarkable to understand the pulsing emotions bubbling under Stoner’s
surface when his outward appearance is so tame, but that’s how most of us live.
Indeed, that’s the magic of Stoner: he’s the kind of unglamorous hero that the
rest of us are.
I’ve run macrolit for three years, and this is my first full-length review. I couldn’t help it because I love this book so much. It’s now a Top 5 all time novel for me. Please read this wonderful, touching book! And if you have read it, please chime in with your thoughts.
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Allen Ginsberg, A Supermarket in California (Berkeley, 1955).
Self-accusation is useless. There is absolutely no sense in writing all this down, and I’m really only doodling, trying somehow to induce a more lucid mood. I know exactly what I ought to be doing. I ought to make japam, go for a walk, write letters, get on with my novel. I ought. I ought. I ought. How sick I am of that word!
Good. Now do something.
Christopher Isherwood, diary entry dated March 6, 1951
A PSA to All High Schoolers/Middle Schoolers Planing To Attend College:
MOTHER FUCKERS *kicks down the library door* STOP *throws a copy of Frankenstein at your head* FUCKING *chop-kicks with a copy of Dorian Grey* IGNORING *smacks you with Lord of the Flies* AND *smacks you again with War and Peace* BITCHING *slams your head with Catcher In The Rye* ABOUT YOUR DAMN *kicks over a cart of classic books including Les Mis and The Great Gatsby* ENGLISH *throws Ulysses into your stomach* CLASSES!
In Short: Classic literature isn’t stupid. And neither are any of you. Reading and studying literature only makes you smarter and more keen to the world around you. So PLEASE pay attention; I promise college will be 100x easier if you do.