All posts tagged “novel

2 comments

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940)

Wow, this is just a beautiful novel. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to it, but this was a nice moment to find it, when I’ve been doing so much driving around through small towns of the South, thinking about tribes and clans, fear of the outsider and the other, whether there’s any warrant for beauty without blood on it. When young Mick Kelly, McCullers’ avatar, wants to absent herself from the physical and cultural poverty that surrounds her, she retreats to a mental space she calls her “inside room,” where she imagines travel to foreign countries, playing symphonies she’s composed for appreciative audiences. I know that room! I’ve been living half my waking moments in it lately. (My preferred fantasy is making photos of the sea in Rotterdam, but you get the idea.)

Mick’s one of four major characters who orbit the absence at the book’s center, a man named Singer who is deaf and dumb. Singer, like The Brother from Another Planet and Chauncey Gardiner, has an obscure interior; he mainly (though not entirely — McCullers does give him one great obsession) serves as a screen for others to project their desires and fears upon. In addition to Mick, the type of sensitive kid who hides in the moonlit shrubbery to listen to music from a radio playing in a fancy house, there’s Jake Blount, a would-be labor activist who can’t persuade the town’s laborers to get as enraged about their oppression as he is. And Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Diner who creates a safe space for misfits but can’t ever make a human connection with any of them. Most affecting of all is Dr. Copeland, an elderly black doctor with a kid named Karl Marx, who lives a life of uncompromising dignity and service in the tragically mistaken belief that self-respect will lead to respect from others. All four of these idealists are worn down, sometimes slowly and sometimes with sudden violence, by the brute realities of ignorance, indifference, contempt, and cruelty.

McCullers handles her plot, characters, pacing, themes, and all that excellently, but what I really admired here was the book’s openness of attention. Even as she’s running down some pretty programmatic themes — alienation, oppression, etc. — McCullers takes plenty of time, and plenty of pleasure, in describing the smell of the sun on the summer sidewalk, the goodness of delicious food, the feeling of being in an old body, or a young one. There’s a physicality to this world that helps it transcend being merely a brace of socialist parables. Loved it.

 

0 comments

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.