'Stoner' by John Williams (1965)

Stoner - John Edward Williams

John Williams, Stoner (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 288pp


I find it a bit difficult to collect my thoughts on this novel, because it seems my opinions differ hugely from the vast majority of other readers. Stoner, originally written in 1965 by John Williams, has become a universally-acclaimed success in 2013 but, for the life of me, I can't see why. [Note: This review contains spoilers, but in my opinion the plot is not really all that important.]

It's not that I found it boring - I didn't. Sure, not much happens, but it is well-written and I was open-minded enough to give it a chance. If you were just to read the synopsis, you would think it was the most excruciatingly dull book ever written, but Williams does manage to breathe some life into it. Whilst not exciting, it is at least somewhat engrossing. The problem is the characters, towards all of whom I experienced a negative reaction. All the characters seem emotionally repressed, which gives the reader a peculiar constipated feeling throughout. This is not helped by the fact that the third-person narrative is also rather formal and addresses the protagonist by his surname rather than his first name, reinforcing the emotional distance evident in Stoner's world. The reader is always made to feel like an outside observer, rather than someone immersed in Stoner's world. For example, too often we are just told what a character is feeling, rather than being shown, rather than being allowed to reason it out for ourselves. The oppressiveness and rigidity is such that when Stoner begins an affair with Katherine, it reminded me a little bit of the love affair between Winston and Julia in the totalitarian regime of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, only Orwell's dystopian world was less bleak.

Some apologists for this book have countered that if the characters bring a reaction from the reader, whether positive or negative, then that is the sign of a good book. But that's rubbish - the reason I didn't like the characters was because their motivations were baffling and irrational. Williams is gifted enough as an author to sketch out these characters so we invest in them, but then he has them do stupidly inexplicable things. What is the deal with Lomax and Walker, who go out of their way to fuck with Stoner for no reason, imagining that he has wronged them somehow (I re-read through dozens of scenes to try to figure out what these slights might be, but I'm at a loss). Why is Katherine, a young, beautiful, intelligent student, even interested in Stoner, this dour, unattractive, much older man? Even more frustratingly, why is Edith, Stoner's wife, such a bitch? (As with Lomax and Walker, I can't find any stage at which Stoner slighted her.) I won't even begin to chronicle her various irrational actions (as it would mean this review would at least double in size) but the point I'm trying to make is: the problem is not that she is a bitch, but that it's inexplicable why she is. It's baffling and frustrating to read about these characters; at times I just wanted to throw the book out the window.

And Stoner, the titular character, is the worst. The author seems to mistake stoicism for passivity, resulting in this mopey sod for a protagonist, a "man" who is screwed over at every stage of his life and bullied at both work and at home without lifting a single finger to change his lot in life. There's always something depressingly pathetic about a grown man being bullied, but the problem here is that he accepts it all with a shrug. Edith marries Stoner even though she makes no pretence to even like him, and after their wedding night he sleeps on the sofa for the rest of his life. She kicks him out of his home office with no warning, so he goes along amiably and sets up in another, much smaller, room. He finally finds true love in an affair with Katherine, but when it is discovered he makes no attempt to keep her. Most unforgivably, Edith systematically abuses their young, gentle and intelligent daughter Grace so that she grows up to be seriously messed up. "Popular" (ahem) with all the boys at school, Grace becomes a depressed alcoholic and a single mother who abandons her own child. And what does Stoner, her father, do? Fuck all. Like everything else, he accepts it with a shrug. Edith is a bad mother, to be sure, but Stoner is just as bad as a father as he acquiesces in the abuse when he should be protecting her. This is the character the author, and the vast majority of reviewers, it seems, label as a 'hero'.

This 'hero' label particularly annoys me, as we're supposed to believe that there is dignity and valour in living this stoic, unassuming life (though, as I've intimated, it's not so much stoicism as passivity) - that Stoner is a hero because he accepted his lot. He is happy with his job immersing himself in literature and is thankful for the very few, very brief moments of happiness he has in his 60+ year lifespan. In an interview quoted in the introduction, the author has explicitly stated that Stoner is 'a witness to the values that are important'. What, like child abuse? Letting people walk all over him, destroy his career, drive Katherine away, with only a sigh and a shrug of the shoulders as a response? Letting Edith abuse their daughter so that she grows up to be an alcoholic, knocked up and left with a war baby by a man she didn't even like, one of many boys she admits to being 'popular' with? Letting all this happen just because you enjoyed "the moment" is selfish and despicable.

A lot of people have touched on this "stoicism", and paid tribute to Williams' book as an uplifting paean to the human spirit. In fact, it's nihilistic. The author seems to revel in the fact that 'life is hard, then you die', with all efforts at improvement being futile. Using a farming analogy on page 110 he notes the circle of life, "the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been - a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase." For him, life is "expended in cheerless labour", a phrase which concisely describes my attempts to get through this book. The Stoner character takes "a grim and ironic pleasure" that all the knowledge he acquired in his life led him to realise "that in the long run all things... were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter." (pg. 184). Stoner admits at the end that he didn't even want things to be better, and is unmoved when he realises his now-grown-up daughter is "utterly without hope" (pg. 258) and is even happy that she uses alcoholism as a crutch (pg. 257). Stoicism as a philosophy is meant as a way of allowing for emotional freedom and integrity, not an excuse to repress emotion and take glee in failure and hardship. And Williams does seem to take glee in heaping misfortune onto his characters; I believe the only reason we are shown Grace as a gentle, adorable child is to make it harder to witness what Stoner and Edith allow her to become. When Stoner gets cancer, I had to laugh at the predictability of Williams' morosity.

I know I've gone on a bit of a rant here; if you like it, fine. Strange, but fine. But don't feel as though you have to like it just because everyone else seems to. It's the sort of book that doesn't have a lot to say but is presented in such a way as to trick people into over-intellectualising it. It certainly doesn't deserve all the hype. I still plan on reading more of Williams - Butcher's Crossing seems more like my cup of tea. I've heard it said that Butcher's Crossing reads like it was written by a completely different writer. Let's hope so. It wasn't that I didn't get this book, just that it wasn't very good. Many people seem to be making the mistake of equating its nihilism with gravitas. If Stoner can't be arsed with his life, why should we?