Friday, March 14, 2014

Briefly: John Edward Williams, Stoner (1965)

Williams, John Edward, Stoner, New York: Viking, 1965

Stoner at Goodreads
Stoner at IBList

Recent popular article at The New Yorker

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Rating: 7/10

Ignored upon publication, initially receiving mixed reviews yet lauded over the coming decades, John Edward Williams's novel Stoner only recently achieved a merge between praise and sales. A great deal has recently been written about the novel, much of it seemingly as part of publisher Viking's attempt at generating sales: while I liked Julian Barnes's article (and Barnes himself as an author), I would prefer seeing a non-Viking-published writer pen an article titled: "The Must-Read Novel of 2013," particularly when the superlative title nonetheless allows its author to state it is not a great novel but one that is "substantially good" (using Williams's own description of the work). Praise and sales aside, the work has received justified criticism, often for its depiction of its antagonists and its protagonist.

Though I genuinely enjoyed the work, I had one major difficulty: William Stoner relinquishing his wonderful ties with toddler daughter, allowing his mean wife to so easily destroy their relationship, the only bond he's formed at that stage in his life. The scenes of Stoner studying with his daughter at her little desk are heartwarming, and with an attachment so tight I find it difficult to believe that he would so easily let go. Worse, however, is that if he can let go, leaving his daughter in the claws of her Cruella de Ville mother, I find it difficult to respect him. A recent father with a strong attachment to my little guy, I'd kill anyone in a blind fury who would dare intervene in our bond. My feelings at this point in the novel were so strong I almost disliked the work and was prepared to approach the rest of it with critical faculties on high alert. I was, however, utterly sucked in to the academic Lomax incident that immediately followed. A great authorly move to insert that sequence here, detracting us from Stoner giving up on his daughter.

Though I bought his courtship and marriage to the villainous Edith Elaine Bostwick, I was uncomfortable with his marrying someone who so clearly, to the reader at least, didn't care for him. Clearly well-to-do, she did not need the marriage, and I read her giving in to the union because she and her family did not believe another opportunity for marriage would come around. Stoner himself married out of lust, though the narrator claims he loved her, which I am suspicious about. His love for his daughter was undeniable, as was his passion for Katherine Driscoll, but his love for Edith is questionable.

And really it is the academic setting and not the familial aspect of the novel that makes it such a good read. I believe in the petty squabbles at the faculty, and I can respect Stoner for standing up to academic integrity (despite not standing up for father-daughter relationships). The novel is written in a cold, precise and even academic tone, with sparse and straightforward prose. Minimalist and evocative, some awkward adverbs do manage to peek through the otherwise colourless sentences.

There does exist a certain character manipulation in the novel, if we examine the two extreme reactions above. Stoner's stance against Lomax and for academia is a rigid, self-assured move, whereas his relinquishing of his daughter is a passive, conflict-fearing bit of cowardice. Recalling the two momentous events in the book, when Edith removes their daughter from Stoner's study and when Stoner launches into Lomax's protege at the oral examination leave me the impression of two distinct and wholly separate men. The powerful lecturer and prideful academic who turns out to be the great lover is not the man who gives up his daughter, but rather than passive boy we first meet at the farm. Though I liked the book very much I cannot reconcile the two, and feel that Williams created a plot that he was able to manipulate a character through, while disregarding consistency.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I liked this book a lot. I think the only thing he was truly able to care about was being a teacher. Everything else got short shrift in the end.

Casual Debris said...

I find I like the book more on an emotional level. It's certainly powerful, but when I think seriously about it there are bits I have trouble with. Bits aside, nonetheless a strong work.

Ron Scheer said...

Thanks for your review and critique of this novel. As a former academic, I find fiction and drama set in that world very insular and claustrophobic, not unlike the ivory tower itself. Patti has recommended this novel to me before, and after your review, I'm giving it a pass a 2nd time.

I have read Williams' Butcher's Crossing, which tells a gripping tale of the frontier, though I found the ending did not make a lot of sense.

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