A Life, Lived | Stoner, by John Williams

Introduction 

My weekend has been filled with reading and books, which is just the weekend I needed to recover for the week that lies ahead. On Friday, I spent a couple of hours on Goodreads, trying to figure out the stuff I wanted to explore and get through by the time Sunday night rolled around. Stoner was a fresh find, an indirect find, so to speak. I saw a book about John Williams’ life – a book that described itself as an essay about why Stoner was the perfect novel, and I was intrigued. I’ve only ever heard of the name John Williams in the context of film scores, so to hear that there was this celebrated novelist I knew nothing about who seemed to have a cult-like following for this “perfect” book, I had to read it. Thus it was that I sat on my desk last evening after a scrumptious meal and I made a new friend: William Stoner.

Also, no, the book is not about weed.

Plot Summary

John Williams navigates you through the life of William Stoner, a lifelong academic and a Professor of English at the University of Missouri. You’re introduced to Stoner posthumously in the first chapter – an introduction that lays down clear benchmarks for the kind of expectations you should have from the book. Williams tells you in no uncertain terms that Stoner was an ordinary man, who had an ordinary career – who did nothing extraordinary. Over the course of subsequent chapters you learn about Stoner’s upbringing on a farm, and you’re transported through the different phases of his life and the different decisions he takes – in finding love, in working on English Literature, in understanding the impact of war. It’s really an unremarkable plot. Quite simply put: it’s one man’s journey through life.

The writing, however, is incredible.

Characters

It’s pretty evident from everything I’ve said above that the character: Stoner, is central to the entire plot. He drives it forward, slows it down, and brings it to a close. Some books which place a singular character at their center, or a singular perspective at the forefront struggle because they don’t establish the character’s voice early on. As a result, expectations are wayward. Williams does this remarkably well.

First, he stays away from writing in the first person at any point. The entire book is told in third person, giving the author more control over the kind of observations he is able to fit in about Stoner’s life – about Stoner’s temperament, for example.

Second, Stoner is set up very, very early on in the book.

You can tell that he’s in for a life of hard work and challenge. This isn’t exclusively because of the description of his farm-upbringing. Williams also achieves this end by labouring through descriptions of Stoner’s entire thought process. When, early on, Stoner is faced with the decision of going to school or continuing to stay on the farm – Williams doesn’t cut to the chase and reach the outcome (Stoner goes to University). Instead, Williams explains everything that terrifies Stoner, what excites him – and why he ends up acceding to his fathers’ pushes. For me, as a reader, it helped me understand Stoner’s motivations, but it also laid out how much thought (sometimes fruitless) the character put into everything he did. Thinking is hard work – and setting up a character who ponders deeply about everything, who doesn’t fully comprehend or rely on intuition early on in the book sets him (and you, the reader) up for everything that you’re going to see.

Third, supporting characters are eased into the story in small batches. Williams makes it clear that the focus is never supposed to be away from Stoner. Even when the scenery changes – like when Stoner moves to University, or the times change – like when World War I breaks out, Williams doesn’t introduce more than 2 characters into Stoner’s life arc. This clarity of writing allows each individual’s character arc to develop fully (only one character is written out early – killed in action), but more crucially, it allows Williams to lay out, slowly, Stoner’s dynamic and interaction with each person. That enables them to be more organically involved in Stoner’s life. This is best illustrated not through Edith, but through Gordon Finch. Finch is introduced as a friend. Stoner and Finch get on really well – exchanging observations about University life that you’d only ever exchange with your closest peers. Finch disappears, enlisting for the war, and returns in an administrative capacity more senior to Stoner. However, their rapport doesn’t change – and lasts right through to the end. Now, Finch was introduced with another character, Masters (the character who dies young). In my view, settling on a small group reflects the reality of the life of an academic. More central to the argument I was making though, is the fact that it allows for the development of more meaningful interactions with these characters – which keeps the spotlight on Stoner. As the reader, you’re rarely caught onto picking a favourite character: you’re firmly on Stoner’s side, interested solely in the kind of relationship and impact each character will have on his life.

Conflict

After I read the book, I went on to read a few essays I mentioned earlier – about why Stoner was the perfect novel, and they all point to the way conflict is explored. Each one of them highlighted how conflict was introduced at exactly when it needed to be in Stoner’s arc.

While I agree with that, I think some nuance exists in the kind of conflicts introduced. There are the big conflicts: the one with Lomax, the affair Stoner has and the conflict with Edith, the conflict when he tells his parents about continuing on with his studies in English Literature. However, conflict remains a central theme throughout the book – one that shouldn’t be ignored. Williams’ success doesn’t lie exclusively in the fact that he is able to introduce these big conflicts at the right time.

To me, a large portion of that success is owed to the lucidity of his writing of an internal monologue and the internal conflict that Stoner faces almost on a daily basis. We’ve explored this in the above section – on how this helps set up Stoner’s character. Here, what I’d like to concentrate on is the role of this internal monologue in those bigger conflict arcs.

I shall illustrate this through the conflict with Lomax (the conflict with Edith has too many layers and will give away too much of the book). Professor Lomax is another faculty in the English department who Stoner has several scuffles with, climaxing in the big scuffle regarding whether a particular graduate/doctoral student should receive passing marks in his oral examination. Now, while this entire scuffle could have been projected through the single dimension of being an indirect power struggle in the department between Lomax and Stoner, a large amount of the conflict’s introduction takes place through the internal monologue.

Stoner first notices this student when he sits for a graduate seminar Stoner teaches – and Williams elaborates Stoner’s thoughts at the start. In fact, Williams creates a narrative of doubt through every interaction that Stoner has with the graduate student – which culminates the introduction of the conflict with Lomax. Without these deliberate portions of the narrative devoted to exploring Stoner’s internal dilemma about how the student in question has been admitted, the larger conflict loses value. More importantly, what Williams is able to achieve is the opportunity to introduce a counter-narrative and a counter-characterization that is equally powerful by allowing Lomax to replay the entire monologue from a different perspective.

It is a phenomenal lesson in storytelling.

Concluding Remarks

I recognize that a large part of my analysis may not make sense without a reading of the book. Hence, please read the book. It is short and well worth any time you may have. The Guardian wrote about how the book had a ‘sad tone’, and how Williams himself was confused at why people thought Stoner led a sad life. I have to agree. There is a sadness to Stoner, but there is also joy – in equal part. Remember, Stoner’s life is ordinary. It is relatable. Therein lies it’s power.

I loved the book. As someone contemplating a career in the academy, this was just a beautifully told tale of someone determined to teach, and to love, to the best of his capabilities – while making mistakes along the way. A life truly lived. Another great book I’ve read in 2020, earning ***** (5 stars).

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