Stuck in "Stoner"

Ian McEwan praises John Williams’ Stoner on BBC Radio 4. He is not alone. Stoner, first published in 1965, recently hit the top of the Dutch bestseller list. A number of critics and writers have fawned over the revived minor classic, but so far I don’t get it.  

On my second attempt, I’ve made it about halfway in, and I’m stalled. Protagonist and narrator both are inexplicably anhedonic and uncommunicative. William Stoner, we’re told, has been transformed by literature, but he never seems to have any specific thoughts about it, and it fails bafflingly to illuminate his many encounters with failing love, emotional abandonment, and death. If he ever actually draws from the trove of cultural riches that has elevated him from bumpkin to professor, the plodding, yeoman-like, close-third narrator keeps it from us. Perhaps there is a good reason for this. One senses that the readers’ sympathy is meant to lie with Stoner, but his total incuriousity about his wife’s malaise is monstrously callous. His reticent passivity more and more seems like aggressive dereliction. The book is emotionally monotone, its dolefulness dunning. I aim to try to slog through, on the strength of the recent wave of enthusiasm, and because I liked Butcher’s Crossing, but I’m not very happy about it.

Will report back, maybe.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center