A lifeless ordinary? – Stoner by John Williams

stonerStoner. Probably the most talked about book of the last twelve months. A forgotten masterpiece, ‘Probably the best book you’ve never read’ THE SUNDAY TIMES – so says the annoying not-really-a-sticker red disc on the front of my book (you can see it in the picture). Doubly annoying, because a) I can’t peel it off, and b) it’s not true any more (not that I could ever verify it, unless I read every single book ever written).

I must confess to having completely the wrong idea about this book. Twice. First, only half reading tweets about it, I picked up ‘written in the ’60s’, ‘university’ and called ‘Stoner’, which led me falsely to conclude it was about drugs and counter culture; a lost beat generation book perhaps. As the point of On the Road was completely lost on me (I know, I know…) I gave it wide berth, assuming the yeasayers were just trying to appear cool.

At the turn of the year, I started to realise that it wasn’t about that at all, yet I still didn’t have much desire to read it. It’s about a man who goes to university, never leaves and dies. Hardly the stuff legends of made from. I often find classic novels pass me by. Critics attaching great acclaim to glacially slow character studies with depressing revelations. Yet everybody who talked about Stoner loved it. When it came up as potential book group book, I figured, ‘Why not?’ and joined the voices suggesting it. So here I am.

I’m still not sure the yeasayers aren’t in it for the kudos. Yes there’s some great writing, and wonderful moments in the book, but I find it hard to believe the sheer volume of people who are now reading it all agreeing it’s a lost masterpiece. Nobody likes to be a naysayer in a game of middle class point scoring. The book is good yes, but I’m sure there are plenty of better books out there that I’ve never read.

Stoner is a noble man, trapped by his mistakes and constrained by his upbringing. The son of hard working farmers, he enters Missouri University as an agriculture student, hoping to improve the productivity of his parents land. He is an indifferent student. Then one day during an English literature seminar he has an epiphany that marks the beginning of a life in academia.

For me to document the ups and downs of Stoner’s life would be to diminish Williams’s words, so I’ll leave that to him. This is an unremarkable tale, for Stoner is an unremarkable man. Work, marriages, births and deaths, the major events that punctuate all our lives, documented with crystal mundanity. William’s prose illuminates, glorifies even, the trials of the Everyman.

The novel is cited as being sad, and so it is. Not because Stoner’s life is tragic, for it is merely ordinary, but because most us are Stoner. We grow up with dreams, wishing to live our lives as best we can. We hope to become somebody.  In reality we work, we marry, have children, die and are then forgotten. Only the greatest amongst us will leave our a mark. The rest of us are but dust on the wind. It’s a sobering thought.

Stoner runs contrary to the American dream. Most of us are not destined for greatness; obscurity beckons. Yet in Stoner’s life there are moments of happiness and it is these that make life worth living. Though entirely different in tone, the book has a startling similarity with another recent read, Alex Shearer’s This is the Life.

With Stoner Williams documents the life of the Everyman. I recommend it as it is a fine book. Whether it is a great book, I’m not so sure.

The slow burning rise of Stoner to the top of the Bestseller lists started me thinking about just how many fine novels have slipped into obscurity. A few years back our book group read ‘A Pin to see the Peepshow‘ by F Tennyson Jesse, a Virago modern classic, now sadly out of print.Pin

The two books are startling similar (though Peepshow is positively sensationalist compared with Stoner). Both books chart the lives of two ordinary people, trapped by the conventions of their times and social standing. Both novels had the potential to be exceedingly dull, yet both defied this possibility. Tennyson’s book is perhaps a little long winded, but having read both, it’s not hard to imagine them swapping places in the obscurity/popularity stakes.

And that’s just one book I’ve happened to read. There must be any number of titles languishing forgotten in the out of print abyss, thanks to publishing’s fickle masters – the readers. If (heaven forbid) no more books were written as of today, who knows how many gems we might be able to dig up. Publishing by necessity is always looking for the Next Big Thing. Stoner is a reminder that sometimes success has already been overlooked. If only I could invent NBT detection goggles, then I could truly make my mark on the world. Instead…obscurity beckons.


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