Thursday, April 03, 2014

Books before I'm 30: Stoner by John Williams

The project begins!

First book: Stoner, bought for me by my parents as a birthday present.

Stoner is a funny sort of book, in that it was published in 1965 to no particular acclaim but found fame rather randomly in 2013. Its not the sort of book that would seem to be a sleeper hit. It tells the tale of a somewhat unremarkable academic's life, being set (at least initially) pre-world war one, and following his failures and successes.

I can see why a lot of people like the book. Its a well told story, and easy enough to read. It rarely slows done or feels turgid, and the main character is interesting enough. The themes that it hits on: the search for meaning, curating happiness in adverse conditions, loss and hope, are interesting enough. Sadly though, I found myself not enjoying most of the book.

The unfortunate part for me is the blamelesness with which Will Stoner, our main character, acts. He always acts with the utmost virtue. Even when he conducts an affair the narrative does its best to imply that it is not a bad thing he is doing, and even seems to condemn his wife when she injects a cruel jibe about his lover.

Ah yes, his wife. Edith is my main problem with this book, although I do have another. Edith is someone he meets at a party and find himself in love with, despite having little in common with her, and her seeming disinterest. In fact its never quite explained why Edith chooses to marry him in the first place, as she seems to have no affection for him, even though the book takes pains to point out why Edith's responses to Bill's sexual advances are ones of disgust. Edith, it seems, is a creature of spite and hatred, but not in a deliberate way. Her many deeply unpleasant actions towards Stoner throughout the book are apparently not her fault: she makes no deliberate move in her endless campaign of making Stoner's life miserable. Stoner, other than perhaps a lack of self awareness, is apparently not guilty of ever acting poorly towards his wife. Her hatred of him appears to spring up ex nihilo to make Stoner's life that bit worse.

In fact Stoner seems to spend his life dealing with people who hate him for no reason at all. His academic dispute, which take up a large portion of the latter half of the book, come from a character acting in a totally unreasonable way, and Stoner acting in an utterly, completely moral one. The sum of this was to make me frustrated with the one sided portrayal of Stoner against the world, making me wonder if the author wasn't working out his personal bugbear with the world.

I didn't hate this book the way I hated some (I'm glaring at you, the Lovely Bones), but I sadly cannot recommend it.

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