Monday, November 09, 2015

Totality of Vision: John Williams' Stoner

I first learned of John Williams’ Stoner the same way most of this novel’s contemporary readers have: by noticing, in many different places, the peculiarly ardent recommendations the book inspires. I liked the cultish quality of many of these recommendations, and the recurrent phrases employed: “under-appreciated”, “well kept secret”, “neglected masterpiece,” etc. Having read Stoner’s rear cover synopsis more than once, I was finally drawn by the book’s academic milieu, thinking that Williams’ treatment might somehow inform my own approach to 1950s academia in my novel-in-progress. So I bought a copy. Still, though I kept it at hand for several months, I never managed to read past the opening 10 pages or so. In those 10 pages I could see a narrative clarity at work, but somehow I resisted it, dipping into multiple other books instead. 

What finally brought me back to Williams’ book, what finally “hooked” me and got me to commit to the full experience of Stoner, was my frustrated reading of a highly lauded contemporary novel. This other novel was a massive critical success, a prize-winner, and had come to me with the glowing praise of a reader I respect. But as I proceeded through the book’s first third, I felt myself to be constantly at arm’s length from the narrative, unable — or not inspired — to get any closer, unlikely to “sink in.” I don’t simply mean that the book’s characters, events, or voice did not absorb me. I mean that there seemed to be something in the book’s narrative execution that actively repelled me, making real immersion impossible. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The writing was respectable, intelligent, perhaps even graceful, and the narrative events were clearly heading somewhere. Still, I couldn’t help feeling the book wasn’t for me. One evening, after reading for an hour or so, I shut that book and picked up Stoner. The contrast could not have been more dramatic. Suddenly, after my months of poking noncommittally into the novel’s opening pages, Stoner was alive to me, and I was sunk. The narrative clarity I had idly admired before seemed now to be just one element of a magnificent authorial command. 

I read the book’s whole first half that day, and afterward I couldn’t stop dwelling on the contrast between the experience of reading Stoner and the experience of reading the contemporary novel. I jotted a few notes: 
Stoner: lucidity and totality of vision. Descriptive, authorial, authoritative — but always insightful rather than explanatory.” 
That seemed right, but I didn’t yet know exactly what it meant. “Explanatory” was a reference to that prize-winning contemporary novel where, in a meaningful moment, one character smiles at another. Something in the author’s treatment of this moment had rendered it, for me, not illuminating but simply too well understood. With reference to Williams’ writing, what did I mean by “totality of vision”? And how did this quality differ from, say, the clumsy handling of that smile?

Stoner is the concise life-story, birth-to-death, of William Stoner, a child born to stoical Missouri farming folk in 1891 who by seeming accident attends university and is educated out of all meaningful connection to his kin. He falls in love with learning, trains to become a professor, marries a woman beyond his social rank, suffers her manic-depression and growing animosity, has a passionate affair with an ex-student, is exposed publicly and ends the affair on the threat of losing his career, becomes increasingly alienated from his colleagues, former friends, and daughter, and later, following several dispirited years of doing paces in an academic post long since drained of passion, becomes ill and dies sometime after World War Two. Early in the book, Williams describes one of Stoner’s professors at the university as having a disdainful, contemptuous quality, “as if he perceived between his knowledge and what he could say a gulf so profound that he would make no effort to close it.” This could just as well describe Stoner for much of the book, and it’s a kind of key to Williams’ own narrative approach in the novel, from the first pages to the last. The novel’s most excruciating scenes are those in which Stoner is subjected to his mentally ill wife’s cruelty, manipulativeness, and coldness, and even here Williams’ narration never breaks tone, never detours into semi-rhetorical, analytical, or speculative perceptions. Instead, we’re held — enthrallingly — in the emotional immediacy of one profoundly knotted moment after another, well before each moment has slackened and become interpretable. In fact, these moments are never interpreted for us, even afterward. Instead we’re invited to live them alongside the characters and make of them what we will. This is what I would characterize as a totality of vision: Williams’ narrative voice never deigns to be wiser than the narrative moment itself.

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about — brooding about — how in the current publishing industry the forces of consumerism and the lingo of commodification are so often applied to the reading experience. It’s widely taken for granted that the reader, who is essentially viewed as a consumer with glasses, should become an insatiable subject, a billable creature always wanting more: the next plot development, the next page, the next installment in a series. More and more. But reading is not consumerism. And the cool mastery, lucidity, and totality of vision in John Williams’ writing reminds me that what I treasure most in my own reading is the experience of coming to the end of a sentence, of a page, of a chapter, and thinking: This is perfect just as it is. This is just enough. I wish to exist in this awhile, because clearly this accommodates that kind of pleasurable loitering. Clearly, to wish for more would spoil this.