Stoner by John Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
I had more mixed feelings about this book than I’ve had about a book in a long time.
I loved the book at first. The story of a farmer’s son, the first in his family to go to college, who ends up falling in love with literature instead of the agricultural techniques he was sent to school for, was immediately compelling to me; as someone who grew up in a place where expectations of going to college were low and the pursuit of humanities and arts studies were suspect, I found Stoner’s predicament both familiar and somewhat unusual in literature. I appreciated that Stoner never seemed entirely like he “belonged” in academia, yet somehow couldn’t imagine what else he would do. The ending of the novel also pulled me in; the description of Stoner’s last days was beautiful and moving. And in general, the prose and pacing of the novel were beautiful; I certainly still admire John Williams’s skill in moving between specific scenes and time passing, and the construction of his sentences are lovely.
However, the novel really lost me somewhere in the middle. The biggest reason for this was the depiction of Stoner’s wife, Edith. I will admit I have a perverse tendency to feel sympathy for characters that perhaps the reader is not intended to feel sympathy for, but I think Edith’s story is utterly tragic and that she was wholly misunderstood. It was very difficult for me to continue to care about William Stoner after numerous scenes in which he “tenderly” rapes his wife, and it was difficult for me to understand John Williams’s project when he seemed entirely tone-deaf to the fact that it doesn’t matter that they are married, that she “submits” to sex with Stoner, that it was a different time, etc—sorry, it’s rape when she clearly doesn’t want to have sex with him—and I am pretty sure I’m just supposed to think this is normal and Edith’s fault for being frigid. (Even the writer of the introduction calls them “sexually incompatible,” which doesn’t accurately describe their relationship to me.) Edith’s sudden desire for sex when she wants a child seems utterly absurd. And Katherine Driscoll is such an ideal love interest—she even conveniently disappears when their affair begins to affect Stoner’s job—that she seems equally impossible as a character. Then there’s the plot of Stoner’s feud with his colleague Lomax. While the scene of Walker’s disastrous oral exam was utterly riveting to someone who went through orals, and while the takedown of someone who didn’t do the reading was also satisfying (how often I wished some of my own grad school colleagues had been called out on this!), ultimately the plotline is suspect because, basically, Lomax, who is disabled, has decided to mentor Walker based, it seems, solely on the fact of Walker’s own disability, and then tries to destroy Stoner by accusing him of prejudice. This is such typical white-male-conservative-paranoia-fantasy that I really had to question Williams’s choice in making Lomax and Walker disabled. The petty department politics are real and believable, but Williams strikes a low blow in making Lomax petty in this particular way, as well as by depicting him as mysterious, perverse, and suspect from the moment he arrives on the scene.
Is it possible that John Williams is fully aware of these flaws, and of Stoner’s inability to understand other people? It’s possible. After all, there is this passage: “For a moment he saw himself as he must thus appear […] He had a glimpse of that figure that flittered through the pages of cheap fiction—a pitiable fellow going into middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger than himself” etc. In this moment, Stoner sees the cliché of his life, and yet sees that in fact this is what happens—sometimes we are living what would seem a cliché, but it is real and new and deeply felt to us. So, maybe I just missed the entire point of the novel. But it really just felt like pages and pages of poor, misunderstood, harmless Bill Stoner and the bad people who make life difficult for him for no reason.
Finally, as just a side note, it made me a little angry that Stoner suddenly and mysteriously becomes a better teacher (meaning, for the record, a better lecturer) when he “lets go” (incidentally, while his wife is out of town) rather than anything he actually tries to do in order to improve, and that he obviously sees teaching freshman comp as a punishment unworthy of him and “real teaching” as teaching literature. This is a widely held opinion but annoying nonetheless. So while I liked the way the novel depicts his colleagues as being contemptuous of Stoner’s “dedication” to teaching—that felt very true—it was also annoying that there was nothing about Stoner that seemed particularly dedicated to teaching as I see it.
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