Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Stoner by John Williams - a review

StonerStoner by John Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having read the last pages and having said my farewell to a man who had kept me company for the past few days, it is with a certain sadness that I gaze upon the closed covers of Stoner, a novel which manages to divide friends and foes alike. Fortunately for me, I came to meet Stoner with an open mind, paying no heed to the numerous reviews already written.

I met William Stoner during a warm summer evening. He entered quietly, hardly drawing any attention to himself as the opening lines laid the crux of his life bare before my eyes. There was an odd familiarity to him from the start . . . at first, I thought of Hamsun and his Hunger, even, perhaps, of Camus' Mersault. Yet, the more I read, the more familiar he became, (a cast of characters flashed through my mind - Severin, Don Quixote, Cornelius Conlon, Dr. Rieux, Cosimo, even the old drunk Chinaski) and I realized that Stoner was all of them and more.

What do all these characters have in common? They are the reflections of us, of our trials and tribulations, of our shared pain. They are human, faulty and beautiful at the same time, and we can relate to them because inside every one of them we find a little bit of ourselves. When I looked at William Stoner, I found a lot more than I would be comfortable admitting.

The novel itself is rather simple, I must admit. Nevertheless, it is in the simplicity where lies its brilliance. It lacks any plot to speak of. Instead, John Williams used a straightforward linear narrative to establish the form of a man, and then slowly proceeded to peel away layer after layer to expose the intricate human being beneath the out-of-style clothing.

William Stoner is not exactly a likeable human being, but he is a sympathetic one nonetheless. I could not help but to feel empathy towards him, from his childhood to his rough entry into the world of academia to his descent into a pitiful existence where only habit and custom kept him going. William Stoner is neither a hero nor a villain, but he is profoundly human. A vulnerable human being hiding beneath a callused shell, a man who is driven by the pureness of thought without any regard for his own advancement, whether at work or at home.

Obstacle after obstacle, Stoner does not really overcome his woes, with the exception of one small victory, which he did not even desire. Rather, he grows numb. Comfortably numb, but numb nonetheless. Yet, as he does, he does not do so for his own sake. Most of the time, for the sake of being left to be himself, he is selflessly putting up with whatever life throws at him. And even when, finally, he begins to enjoy life while he has an affair, it ends with pain brought about by the need to protect others rather than himself.

In a way, Stoner has to be both admired and chastised. His life has a purpose, but that purpose was realized upon an external impulse. His own decisions, often noble yet misguided, merely advance his fall. His suffering is not spectacular, yet it is constant and universal to a degree that we can all relate to in one way or another.

Stoner is one of those rare books that do not shake your world, but help you realize more of it. It is a masterful study of man torn apart. It is philosophical in its simplicity and approach, yet existential in its progression and conclusion. It is, undoubtedly, a work of literature, and it just might be the best American novel of the past fifty years.

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