"In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at fi...

Book Review: Stoner, John Williams

"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."

You might not have heard of Stoner. I hadn't, about two years ago. But when you do hear of it (one day!), you suddenly see it everywhere. Everyone has read it and loved it. They're all posting it on Instagram and putting it in their top ten lists. They've rated it 5 stars on Goodreads. It has passed you by all these years, and you never even knew about it.

The publishers are aware of this phenomenon, too. There's a quote on the front of my copy that calls it "The greatest novel you've never read."

So, opening it up and knowing all this, I was sceptical. It can't be that good, can it? I mean, the first chapter is just like any other well-written opening. As is the second. When am I supposed to feel this magic? When does this book force itself into my list of Best Books Ever?

I don't know the answer to that, really. I guess it's at some point in the middle. Once you're familiar with the characters and the little world that they inhabit, and you're emotionally invested in their lives. But it does happen eventually. I did fall in love with this book.

William Stoner is a normal boy from a family of farmers, who gets an opportunity to go to the University of Missouri to do a degree in Agriculture, which he takes. While he's there, he makes lifelong friends and discovers that he has a passion for literature, so he switches courses and tells his parents he'll never be coming home to the farm, because his whole life will be spent in education. He becomes a doctor, and begins to teach.

From there, he lives a pretty straightforward life. He falls in love, gets married, has a child, falls in love again, quarrels with friends, gets stressed out at work, et cetera. No great catastrophe happens, there isn't some complex twist, it's just a big fat chunk of a fictional life.

But it's never boring. Though the story told is of a fairly ordinary life, there is nothing ordinary about the writing. Williams paints a picture so real that you feel like Stoner could be a friend or a teacher you've known in your own life. You feel what he feels: indignation when he's being treated badly, happiness when he's with his daughter, anger when he is the victim of injustice.

And this feeling all comes from incredible subtlety. What makes the writing so good is that it never has to resort to exaggeration or hyperbole to make a point, and it never, ever tells you when it can show you instead. I've been thinking a bit about this recently, and the simplest way I can think of it is that if you're trying to tell a story in which, for example, something is unfair, as soon as you use the word "unfair" in that story, you've lost. To really succeed as a writer, you have to let the reader think of that word themselves, after you've given them all the evidence they need to come to their own conclusion. That's what is meant by show, don't tell, and that's what Williams did here, flawlessly. You feel it all so acutely because he led you there slowly, without ever letting you know he had your hand in his.

It's a story about growing up. Then it's a story about loving education. Then it's about marrying the wrong person, and then it's about overcoming adversity, and then it's a love story. It is all of these things and none of them, or it's whatever you make of it. It's beautiful and complex and I absolutely love it.

But wait, I'm not done yet. I haven't told you a pointless story about my life. So here goes.

Only one book has made me cry. It was Touching From A Distance, the biography of Ian Curtis written by his widow, Deborah. I was about 19, and cultivating a depression that I thought was a very romantic symptom of my artistic brilliance and which would make me interesting and attractive, just like Curtis's depression was, and did. But really, a lot like Curtis's issues, all that my own did was make me act like an arsehole to a woman who didn't deserve it. Anyway, thinking I was a brilliant but doomed rock star, I reached the bit where Curtis dies, and sobbed on the number 13 bus all the way to uni. I grew out of that phase, my emotions levelled out, and I haven't shed a tear over a paperback since.

But Stoner… Stoner nearly made me cry. It was so close. As close as a book can come, these days.

And that's what great books do. Make you feel things, right in your guts and your pants and your tear ducts.


You may also like

No comments: