With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
A few remarks about the book Stoner:
I am always wary of a personally recommended book. The praise given by the recommender is meant to entice but instead places pressure. I don’t necessarily have to like the book but I am no longer able to feel indifferent. It cannot be just a book I picked up randomly. It’s now something else entirely. More than a simple book, it carries weight, the actual poundage depending on how I feel about the recommender.
The book Stoner was recently personally recommended to me. I liked it. It reminded me of the Southern tales told by Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. At times it was powerful, measured in my rapid heartbeat and suffocation of senses. In truth, I hadn’t been faced with such unrelenting cruelty since Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. There I was, lying in bed this morning, already late for work, and unable to further protect myself from the emotional body blows, I gulped air pleading for justice. Please. Let him be. He deserves to be happy. He just wants to be a teacher.
It was a page turner. I remained uncomfortably titillated as many page-turners are wont to do except that it wasn’t gripping in salacious or suspenseful thrall. It held me merely in what was happening now, not in what happens next.
Like good novels, it took its time laying out all the pieces, asking you to see the whole board and then unfolded carefully placed cards. Stoner is not a mystery novel but it certainly kept me guessing. Almost all the players were strongly written, even if their backbone wasn’t. The few exceptions were characters I saw as worthy of more page time though understood once their moment had played out for our hero there was no need to carry superfluous baggage. In that way it was also a lean story with very little fat.
Taking place right before the start of World War I, it follows the life of a man who grew up on a farm, stumbles into college, decides his fate there, marries and then plies his trade. He faces great opposition within his marriage and his work, and works steadfastly through both as the country changes over time.
The events befalling the hero can be seen as self-inflicted and circumstantial; allowing interpretation whether it is a life lived in misery, fullness or quiet desperation. Though the story runs its course, I did not feel committed to a particular life. In fact, despite the heavy dread and panic experienced, I like the complexity in the hero’s decisions. For example, some may find the hero’s wife as an unsympathetic character but the layers are there if you wish to see them.
Without context, this is the passage that sucked me in and did not let me catch my breath once.
“But don’t you 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 receded. 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.”
These are just some thoughts of a delightfully affecting novel I knew nothing about until this year. This is not a recommendation.
Perish the thought.