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Stoner, John Williams (1965)

ImageThis novel has been recommended to me by a number of  friends over the years. One of these was so passionate about the book that she claimed to have purchased a case of copies from the publisher to hand out to people; my copy is the one I accepted from her with gratitude and amusement. I have a feeling there’s a kind of genre for this book, the pellucid, perfect, one-offs which seem absolutely seminal to those who have read them, but which retain an aura of being somehow unknown, or under-known — Housekeeping, The Ginger Man, A Confederacy of Dunces, Mrs. Bridge . . . I don’t know, I’m probably making no sense.

Here’s Stoner: Son of a dirt farmer in late 19c Missouri is sent to the new university in Columbia to learn agriculture. Instead he falls in love with literature. This is the signal moment in the book from which all else follows, and it requires a leap of faith, because our hero seems to have not an iota of self-consciousness, indolence, or voluptuousness, all of which I thought were required in order to give one’s life over to literature. Stoner has a one-dimensional loveless marriage to an inexplicably depressed woman, a one-dimensional forty-year antagonism with his department chair, a one-dimensional love affair with a graduate student, a one-dimensional fondness for his one-dimensional daughter, and then dies of cancer. It’s not very exciting. In fact the plot is unimaginably dull. None of the characters, Stoner included, has any psychological depth — or at least none is revealed to us — and none of them do anything remotely interesting or surprising.

So what’s the attraction? I think the book has two potential audiences. Sentimentalists may enjoy the story of a man who never really understood a thing about himself, the world, or anyone else, but maintained a stalwart dignity from cradle to grave. Writers will be fascinated by the writing. The prose here is transparent in a way I can’t figure out how to describe. I don’t feel like I’m reading when I read it, and I don’t know how Williams does that. There are occasional infinitesimal gestures of lyricism at moments of extremity — sex and death — but by and large the prose has the solidity, gravity, and smoothness of granite. I can’t say I loved this book; on the contrary, it stirred perhaps no emotion at all. But I can see why a prose stylist like my friend would buy it by the case to hand out to students and writer friends, as a specimen.