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Stoner: Marvelously Mundane

John William's Stoner might not be an-edge-of-your-seat page-turner, but the subtleties of the protagonist's day-to-day life say a lot about human nature, as Anam Sufi finds out.

John Edward Williams' Stoner is a novel that draws attention to the heroics of the average man. It’s not one of those books that sends your emotions off the Richter scale, as it lacks the action and extraordinary occurrences that are often considered (arguably mistakenly) to be included in the criteria for what determines a successful work of fiction. Having said this, its subtlety in terms of content as well as language leaves the reader with a resonating sense of nostalgia and sympathy for the plights of an average Joe. The novel’s stylistic form is what creative writing directors often describe as a “bathtub story”, in that it is narrated to the reader most of the time, and seldom does it break away from its narration to offer dialogue between characters. But this should not be considered a con, as it too reflects the metaphorical insularity of the protagonist.

If your thinking this is a novel about drug and substance abuse, you couldn’t be more off the mark. It tells the humble story of William Stoner as he tries to better his circumstance by emerging from his farm life (an environmental context that has framed his family’s employment for generations) and obtaining a university education. Although he is sent on the pretense that he is to return to the farm and better its production with the modifications that he learns of whilst at university, Stoner abandons the idea entirely and instead chooses to pursue a degree in English literature. 

From thenceforward he begins his career path towards becoming a professor at the university. Whether its marriage, his job, or parenting, everything about Stoner ends up becoming an insipid and cheap settlement to a life that had once harboured a lot more potential. The unsettling part is the contentment and acceptance with which Stoner goes through his life, and in this way, he ultimately emerges as a character that the reader both admires and castigates. He is admirable for the way in which he represents the actuality that underlines most individuals and their attempt to get through life on a day by day basis, but censured because he also represents all that we hope to refrain from becoming; an empty shell of the dreams that we start to nourish in our youth. 

I thought I’d make use of this totally cool illustration by Kirsten Harper, depicting the contrast between youth and old age.

For fair-weather readers, I wouldn’t recommend this book, simply because its progression is fairly static and you will probably put it down before reaching page 20. Having said this, I would highly recommend this to anyone willing to plow through the simplicity of “action”, as it ultimately leaves a very bittersweet sensation when completed. This is the kind of book that most definitely has a greater critical appeal than it does commercial. In the humdrum of the literary world I found it to be a refreshing dose of reality, and it reinforces the idea that everyone has a story to tell, even if they lack the excitement that we mistakenly believe is a requirement to merit publication.