For a novel that burst onto the literary scene so unpredictably and with such unmitigated energy, John Williams’s novel Stoner is a remarkably muted affair. Boasting a host of positive reviews, which range from actor Tom Hanks to an anonymous troop of adoring Twitterati, the ‘greatest novel you have never read’ provides a plaintive account of life, love and education. It’s a novel that aligns itself with the modernist penchant for the mundane, that revels in the inconsequential and the sparse, which, although a blind glance at its title and publication date may suggest otherwise, is a more natural bedfellow of Henry James and Ford Madox Ford than, say, Hunter S. Thompson.
As a narrative, the foundations of Stoner are built upon the inherent misfortune of the eponymous protagonist, who, through a process of attrition, is beaten and broken by his sad and ruthlessly ordinary circumstances. For Williams, Stoner is the Everyman, the brow-beaten, ill-fated man, the vehicle through which the exploration of ‘everyday’—a concept that has its roots in characters like Jane Eyre, Dorothea Brooke and Mrs Dalloway. Never in sight of the melancholy heights reached by Tess in the woods nor Lear in the gale, it soon becomes clear that the misfortune that shrouds the protagonist, the legacy of whom, it must be remembered, Williams assures us ‘is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity,’ forms the primary substance of the character.
At times saintly, always stoic, I cannot shake the sensation that Stoner is wholly defined by his crumbling lot. A composite of responses to his pragmatic parents, his estranged wife, his bitter colleagues, Stoner is a man hardened into a submissive stone without an ounce of ability to rally against his circumstances. After all, ‘From the earliest time he could remember, William Stoner had his duties,’ and it’s this sense of obligation, first to his estranged wife Edith and then to his beloved department, that compounds both his being and his misery. Stoner is a principaled man who fights for his jobs and for his family; he does not fight for himself. In making his character more stoned than stoner, Williams’s Everyman is never wholly believable as a honest victim—he is, at times, too ordinary to be ordinary. Instead of fulfilling the rôle of the universal sufferer, Stoner forms the spine of a novel that reads as a patient exercise in determinism.
That’s not to say there’s an absence of beauty in Stoner. Williams crafts his simple prose with a delicate assurance and is at his strongest when he speaks most generally:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence of the heart.
It’s a quiet little novel that recounts the underwhelming life of an underwhelming man, whose steadfast determination endures two World Wars and two ill-fated bouts of love. Even Stoner’s minor victories, which range from inter-departmental tussles (‘It was a triumph in a way, but one of which he always remained amusedly contemptuous, as if it were a victory won by boredom and indifference’) to a liberating love affair, are always coupled with a sense of wasted potential. It seems a certain paradox arises when a novel that prides itself on understatement is championed so vocally. Stoner is a novel that’s suited to hiding quietly in the corner, tipping its hat to whosoever unearths accidentally its simple, sombre story. Reading Stoner is like admiring a dry stone wall—we’re impressed by its permanence against the odds, enjoy its quaint modesty and acknowledge the strength of its individual components, but ultimately are forced to wonder if there could be more holding it all together.