Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Stoner

Stoner Stoner by John Edward Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully written novel that manages to make drama out of a life in which very little happens. The final pages in particular are masterful, achieving a real depth of elegy and perspective.

That said, it troubled me that Stoner was so much more sinned against than sinning. For all the authentic and powerful emotional exploration of the novel, the story itself depended too much for my taste on what amounts to adversaries -- in particular a petty department chair whose backstory is only briefly hinted at. I'm tempted to put the wife in the same category -- he says to each at one point that he's startled at how much he or she "hates" him -- but the final pages suggest more of her perspective than we otherwise see. I'd like to have seen a deeper exploration of Stoner's own missteps, his own poor choices.

As an aside, this one shows a striking sense of academic life from the 1910s to the early 1950s. You get some great details about the profession, including my favorite line from the whole thing, one delivered with far less irony that we could say it today: "When it was discovered that [a new young professor] was a pleasant and serious young man with no special talent and no gift for teaching, he had been put in charge of the freshman English program." (I'm not saying there's no irony in that -- there certainly is -- it's just that it feels a lot less that what it would mean today.)

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