Friday, October 31, 2014

Stoner : John Williams

By John Williams

The novel starts off with a seemingly depressing two paragraph bio, denoting just how insignificant the eponymous protagonist is:
  William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: "Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues."
  An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves of their careers.
Immediately afterwards, the novel launches into William Stoner's life in detail and lo and behold, although the bio is accurate, his life is quite full and interesting. He stumbles upon a love for his English literature.
  Stoner drew back. "What do you mean?" he asked and head something like fear in his voice.
  Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stone saw the lines on the long thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.
  "But don'tyou know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloane asked. "Don't you understand about yourself yet? You're going to be a teacher."
  Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office reced. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air and he heard his voice ask, "Are you sure?"
  "I'm sure," Sloane said softly.
  "How can you tell? How can you be sure?"
  "It's love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It's as simple as that."
  It was as simple as that. He was aware that he nodded to Sloane and said something inconsequential.
The recurring theme seems to be about finding love for something or someone and then about facing significant challenges to pursuing them. Stoner later falls in love with a woman and marries her, but not a week after the wedding, it is clear that their relationship is doomed.  His wife goes from being passively resistant to the relationship to taking on an active nemesis-like role, particularly after they have a daughter, where she drives as deep of a divide between Stoner and his daughter as possible.  Meanwhile in his university life, a talented professor, Hollis Lomax arrives and proceeds to make Stoner's professional life, hellish through political machinations.  Later on, Stoner eventually finds true love with another woman, but both Lomax and Stoner's wife end up challenging his happiness there as well. 

You could also make the case is that it's about an introvert's struggle through life, where Stoner clearly loves and is knowledgeable about English literature; however, really struggles when it comes to defending against those who can use social relationships as weapons. 

The introduction has a quote from Williams on his viewpoint:
I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job - a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher... I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.
I think it is interesting that Williams thinks that simply finding and truly knowing the love of your life, whether or not it's "successful" is sufficient to say that your life was worthwhile.  I don't happen to agree with him, but I think that just the fact that Stoner elicits thinking about your philosophy on your life makes it more than a worthwhile read.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Round House : Louise Erdrich

The Round House
By Louise Erdrich

A really well-done novel.

Joe is the thirteen year old Native American protagonist/narrator.  A crime befalls his family, and the novel describes his coming-of-age, while working through with the emotional damaging effects of the crime on his parents and him.

A lot of the expository sections, particularly those that describe the episodes of Joe and his three friends reminded of the film, Stand by Me.  In terms of the pacing, the tone and the actual stories, in which they play, get in trouble and fall in love, they tread on familiar ground, but are done well.

The parts that lift this work above other coming-of-age stories are the ones describing Joe's emotional states. Erdrich's word choices and analogies are just particularly striking:
  I had to do what I had to do. This act was before me. In the uncanny light a sense of dread so overwhelmed me that tears started in my eyes and single choking sound, a sob maybe, a wrench of hurt, burst from my chest. I crossed my fists in the knitting and squeezed them against my heart. I didn't want to blurt out the sound. I didn't want to give a voice to this roil of sensation. But I was naked and tiny before its power. I had no choice. I muffled the sounds I made so that I alone could hear them come out of me, gross and foreign. I lay on the floor, let fear cover me, and I tried to keep breathing while it shook me like a dog shakes a rat.
  I lay under this spell for maybe half an hour, and then it went away. I hadn't known whether it would or not. I had clenched my whole body so tightly that it hurt to let go. I was sore when I got up off the floor, like an old man with joint pains. I shuffled slowly up the stairs to my bed. Pearl had stayed by me all along. She'd huddled next to me. I kept her with me now. As I fell into a darker sleep, I understood that I had learned something. Now that I knew fear, I also knew it was permanent. As powerful as it was, its grip on me would loosen. It would pass.
Also, Joe's relationship with his parents are well-written: it's refreshingly loving, honest, but still anchored in reality with nuanced differences in opinion and feelings of teenage confusion.
He came downstairs sweating again, and tole me that every night at six o'clock I was to be home for dinner, which we'd bring upstairs and eat together. Like a family again, he said. We were starting this regimen now. I took a deep breath and carried up the tablecloth. Again, though my mother was angry, my father opened the shades and even a window, to let in a breeze. We brought a salad and a baked chicken up the stairs, plus the plates, glasses, silverware, and a pitcher of lemonade. Perhaps a drop of wine tomorrow night, to make something festive of it, Dad said without hope. He brought a bouquet of flowers he'd picked from the garden that she hadn't seen yet. He put them in a small painted vase. I looked at the green sky on that vase, the willow, the muddy water and awkwardly painted rocks. I was to become overly familiar with this glazed scene during thse dinners because I didn't want to look at my mother, propped up staring wearily at us as if she'd just been shot, or rolled into a mummy pretending to be in the afterlife. My father tried to keep a conversation going every night, and when I had exhausted my meager store of the day's doings, he forged on, a lone paddler on an endless lake of silence, or maybe rowing upstream.
Lastly, the story is set in a Native American reservation and almost all Native American characters. I am unfamiliar with the culture at all, but I thought this was done well.  She was able to mix in the general aspects of any teenage boy growing up in the US (Joe and his friends are Star Trek fans, they sometimes sneak out to drink and smoke) with activities more specific to their culture (picking up
"grandfather" stones for the sweat lodge, the cultural acceptance of visions in dreams), without the exotic-ification or the "look at these interesting things I, as an outsider, know of this culture" proud tone that so too many authors fall prey to.

All in all, this novel was both easy-to-read as well as thought-provoking.

Friday, October 03, 2014

A Visit from the Goon Squad : Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan

This is a non-linearly structured novel, with each chapter showing the perspective of a different character.  All of the characters relate to at least one other character; however, each chapter does not describe the same time frame (i.e. there is a bit of bouncing back and forth in time from one chapter to another).

So the good: Egan's writing draws you in and can absolutely dazzle at times.  In particular, I found chapter 10 to just stick out as a really tightly written, emotionally nuanced section.  (I quickly realized I had read it before - it was actually selected as a short story in the 2011 Best American Short Stories Series).  Other chapters, however, also are successful in portraying unique personalities in situations that are engaging to want to read about.

The bad: Non-linearly structured narratives were novel and exciting for me, back in the 90's, what with films like Run Lola Run, Go, Pulp Fiction, Magnolia and Memento bringing the structure to the mainstream and my having read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five during that period.  In this novel, Egan does not bring a new spin to it and in particular, the super intertwining relationships between the characters feels both forced and tired.  Secondly, the non-linear narratives really live or die by how well-done the end-reveal of how the different strands relate to one another and here, well, the ending was ok, but it just didn't really pop.

With that being said, this was a fast, relatively fun read and if I get a chance, I might pick up another of Egan's works, just purely out of appreciation for her writing ability.