Stoner, by John Williams

John-Williams-StonerIn a recent blog post, I talked about some of the praise this book has received.  I know the dangers of the oversell, I do, and I would hate to have someone not read this book for fear that it could not possibly live up to the hype I am heaping upon it, but this book was, seriously, front to back, page by page, sentence by sentence, one of the best novels I can remember reading.  And you know how much I read.  More than a book a week, all year every year.  And this one belongs near the top.  A star is born.  A new favorite.

The story itself wasn’t complicated.  There were no enormous surprises or shocking literary twists.  There was no time travel or magic.  No explosions or spies.  Certainly no vampires or werewolves.  But it was just gorgeously written.  Magnificently done.  So literate and literary.  Subtly genius.

And there were lines that stuck with me, haunted me, deep truths eloquently conveyed.  There is one part, early in the book, where almost in passing, the narrative voice speaks of the “the corrosive and unspoiled bitterness of youth.” (p. 32).  Does this speak to anyone but me?  Aren’t we almost bitter in our smugness?  Spoiled in our possibility?  We destroy by living.  The realization of any dream means the dying on the vine of so many possible others.  Layers upon layers.  I could think/talk about this one half line in the book for ages.

The failed honeymoon.  I’ve seen it addressed before, but this was on par with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.  So excruciating.  So terrible.  So heavy.  So foreboding.  So awful, and yet it comes from a place of truth so undeniable, and is so fitting for the story, it was truly remarkable.

Because in a strange, tortured way, it is a love story.  Exploring the varied types and aspects of love.  How about this for a realization along these lines: “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” (p. 194).  Are you freaking kidding me?  To borrow the words of the great Justin Timberlake, now how heavy is that?  Love is one of the most complicated topics there is.  A personal favorite.  Not to be explored lightly.

And, well, I can’t spoil the story by identifying the character, but another fascinating topic to me, in life and literature, is this concept of people who seem “almost happy with [their] despair.”  (p. 248).  I find the idea both fascinating and frustrating.  Think.  I think we all know someone like this.  The ones I am thinking of are sort of awful as people.  And yet, I know that at times I probably am one of these people.  Delighting in my own misery.  Wallowing happily in unhappiness.  Why is this?

I am quick to dismiss the story, but it was great in its own right.  It’s just that, sometimes, for a great story, we will forgive mediocre writing.  Not necessary here.  It’s possible that the love of the story was unique to me, a lover of deep thoughts and grinding it out and academia and self-inflicted misery.  I love Missouri.  I love study.  I loved English.  I was destined to love this book and adore Stoner as a new favorite literary hero.

Loved this book.  Could not recommend it more highly.  If you read it and hate it, please don’t tell me.  We may not be able to be friends any more.

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