Williams, John (1965). Stoner. New York: New York Review of Books, 278 pp.
This is a well-written story of an average man who lives an average life.
William Stoner, son of farmers in Missouri, goes off to college at the beginning of the 20th century, studies literature, earns a Ph.D., becomes a teacher, gets married, has a child, has a brief affair with a student, writes one mediocre book, grows old, and dies.
Throughout this ordinary life, nothing really affects him. He seems dim-witted from the start and he never changes The narrator claims he had a burning passion for English literature, but we never see that. This is not a man of passion. He’s an ordinary fellow who plods through life like a mule pulling a plow.
The writing is thoughtful and reflective, but not insightful or lyrical. It just moves slowly along, like the character. I remember thinking, “I wonder how many more pages until he has an affair with a student?” Sure enough. That was an episode, like many others, that was described well, but was utterly mundane, even clichéd in concept. After a spell, the affair ends, the woman moves away, and they never communicate again. The whole thing had no lasting effect on him; didn’t change his view of himself, his life, or his goals. Sure he enjoyed it, who wouldn’t? But it did not make a dent in his life. It was just something that happened. It might as well not have. The whole novel is like that.
There is a nice 40-page story in the middle of the book, where Stoner and a mean-spirited colleague lock horns over nothing (as academics are wont to do), and even though this episode is also a cliché, at least it’s presented mostly in dialog rather than narration, so it comes to life, the only section of the book that does.
Stoner married a mentally ill woman. It was clear (to me) that she was abnormal in the first scenes she was in, and sure enough, she turns out to be angry, frigid, mean, neurotic, paranoid, infantile, and delusional for the rest of the story. Stoner just bears her meanness silently, numbly.
Why did he marry her? Because he was at that age and circumstance when the author decided the character needed to be married. I’m sure there was a timeline of rites of passage on a blackboard: Secure job, get married, buy house, have baby, make tenure… check, check, and check. The narrator asserts that the young bride was beautiful, but we never saw that. Stoner may have had a case of youthful hormones, but romantic love or signs of passion were not evident. As with everything else in his life, and even as he lies dying, Stoner staggers along his timeline, as if in a fog, thinking nothing, learning nothing, breathing for no reason.
Compare this fictional biography with that of “Rabbit” Angstrom, in John Updike’s novel, “Rabbit, Run.” Rabbit too, is an ordinary fellow, not particularly likeable, but he has vision, passions, desires. He does things for reasons. Things happen to him and he reacts to them. But Stoner simply endures, beginning to end, a lump of clay so dry, nothing can make an impression on it.
The writing is careful and the descriptions are exact. There are a few moments of non-cliched poignancy. And overall, the comprehension of such an ordinary, featureless life does make you reflect on the meaning of your own life. Am I just another anonymous William Stoner, destined to leave this earth with no trace of ever having existed? So the novel does have some virtue.
Why do so many people like this book and this character? I think they misinterpret Stoner’s numbness for some kind of noble stoicism, as if he had “risen above” life’s outrageous slings and arrows. But he didn’t rise above. He didn’t even rise up to.