Book Review: “Stoner”

I love books. I love the touch of my fingers upon paper, sometimes coarse, sometimes fine, and I love the smell of ink and bleached paper as I flipped through the pages, which produces a scraping sound whenever my nails scratched through the surface of each page. Every book that I read will be yellowed on one side, and occasionally, the spine will be creased and folded through countless hours of opening it, creating lines upon it; and I hated it when it happens, because I liked my books in perfect condition, even after I have despoiled the secrets within. Ever since I was young, I have acquired the habit of reading, and while many others will prefer to spend their time to expend their physical resources and to breath in the air of the natural world, I crouch in a corner of the room, planted myself on a sofa, shifting into weird positions once in a while to find a comfortable position, while I devoured each sentence with a ferocity and intensity that is inexhaustible.
Language is at once the most magnificent inventions that our common ancestors has came up with, yet it is also exasperating in that it confines us within its boundaries, with its rigid structures and rules. While we read, we are often struck by a rapturous sense of liberation, in that we can experience sensations that goes beyond mere symbols; and yet, paradoxically, language suffocates us, for we know it is the only means of communication we have, and we have to adhere to its sadistic domination on our lives. And yet, putting aside the sense of suffocation, reading is one of the most exhilarating experiences one can have, since it permits me a chance to transcend my current boundaries, and instead, offers my mind to wander through unknown landscapes, sometimes benevolent, sometimes hostile, as I witness the interpolation of words and phrases, transforming my vision into a recorder of other minds – a voyeur of minds.
While reading this book by John Williams, one of the most underrated writers in American literature (who (un)fortunately have received a revival of attention towards his works after his death), I was somewhat struck by the affinity I felt towards its hero, William Stoner. Maybe because it is our similarities, in which we both share a passionate love towards the written, the expressible, and the equally inexpressible. Or maybe it is because of a similarity of temperament. Who knows? I would love to be the acquaintance of him, to converse with him in the matters of books, and he could be my mentor, because I am but an amateur when compared to Stoner’s expertise.
Such is the vivid psychological description in which the writer, John Williams, provided which not only made me feel a connection between me and a fictional character, but also to make me feel as though this person can exist (and indeed, must exist) in a time like ours. Set in the 1930s, in the decades in between both World Wars and the Prohibition as well as Depression era, Stoner, the hero of the book, is originally studying to become a farmer in order to help with his family at the farm. But after a fateful encounter with an English professor, in which the mystique of language possesses him like an unavoidable storm, he decides to change his profession and venture forth into the realm of literature. In the course of his life, he encountered life changing events, such as falling in love with a woman of his dreams, marrying her while discovering after the marriage that the woman is psychologically unstable, and the marriage will soon deteriorate into a toxic one. He will wade through academic politics, with a sworn enemy which is the chairman of the faculty. He will lose his daughter, which he prized very much, to his wife, as the battle between both creates collateral damage in his daughter, Grace, changing her life for the worse. He encounters death, through war, disease, the Depression era suicides. And he will have a love affair with a young instructor to alleviate his pressures which he encountered at home, creating scandals in a sexually repressed society.
This is a quiet novel, centered around an insignificant life, maneuvering slowly through decades of Stoner’s life as he wade through crises, poverty, familial and political conflicts with a stoicism that is all the more remarkable for his meager upbringing. His affects will change through the course of his life from passion, desire, infatuation, care, and love, to mere indifference as he surrendered himself to the ever changing time, and Destiny. His life seems to be a sad, miserable one, as he himself knows the insignificance of it all, as he realized that Time will stop for no one, and that all efforts that we make will ultimately lose its meaning in our final confrontation with the Grim Reaper. His struggles are universal in that we all will face it, sooner or later.
That is not to say that he had not once lived. For he lived all right. He lived not despite having to struggle with every single blow that Life has landed upon him; he lived in spite of it, in that he sees life as ultimately worth living, even when all the evidence tells him the contrary. Here, interpretations may differ, in that some will believe that his life is an unlived one. After all, he had chosen the wrong woman to marry, abandoned his parents to pursue his own passions, losing their love, lost his daughter to a toxic marriage, lost his promising career as a literature professor to a stupid conflict of office politics and denoted to teach only freshmen classes, lost his love affair in which he discovered the possibility of profound love once again in scandalous adultery to (also) office politics and the restrictions of the society. So many losses, no wonder many perceived Stoner to be a failure, one to be pitied and empathized with.
But another interpretation can also be made (such is my interpretation). For on the contrary, his life is a complete one. Who says that a life of completion must be a perfect one? A life with no struggles and suffering is in fact one that is unlived. For life is a struggle, from the moment we see the first rays of sunlight, to the last breath that we drew, all presents itself as a challenge, and we drag ourselves day upon day so that we might enjoy our victory against our failures. Stoner lost many things, and many of the things he lost are unjustifiable, and it incites our anger to see that Life has treated him so unfairly. But he gained many things as well, that we cannot deny. Life is a trade-off: we lose somethings we might cherish a lot in the past, but we also will gain (or regain) things that we will come to love in the future. For isn’t it the love of literature, the love of the world, the love of his job, the love of his daughter, the love of the young instructor – Katherine, the lost love of his wife, and the stoical endurance of all things that are unfortunate but soon too will pass, that defines him as who he is? We are not defined by the things we own, we are defined by what we do. And Stoner, in this regard, lived, and lived to an extreme extent. For despite everything he lost, he nevertheless acquired the only thing that cannot be lost, and will never be snatched away from his possession – love. And this is not only romantic love; no, it is a love that is more profound and encompasses Life in its entirety.
It is a miracle to see such simple materials (the life of an academic) be constructed into a novel, and it is equally another bigger miracle to see that John Williams succeeded in crafting a perfect novel from such simple materials. To put it simply, I enjoyed every single moment of the reading experience, and I regret I have not sooner read it, for it has already been sitting on my shelf for a long, long time. One comes to realize that from an insignificant life, such as Stoner’s, one can learn magnificent truths, truths that are integral to living, to existing, and are as universal, as it is significant to all humankind. History more often than not, neglects to record meager lives such as Stoner’s into consideration. In History, the portraits of the few outlasted the mass, and the conflicts, the battles, the struggles of the masses will soon be forgotten, a simple fleck of dust in the vast flux of Time.
Such is Life, can we rebel against that fact? Maybe not. But maybe, like Stoner, we can learn to endure it, to live our lives to the fullest, to witness the unraveling of it all, even if we might revile against some parts of it, even if after some years, maybe a decade or more, our existence will be forgotten, and our death will be no more than a reminder for all of our mortality, that vulnerability to oblivion. Well, such is Life. That’s how it is.
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