February Reading Recap: A Review of Stoner

February is a short month and usually a busy one, so I only managed to finish reading one non-academic book, John Williams’ 1965 campus novel, Stoner, which is set at my current institution, The University of Missouri, Columbia.

William Stoner is a Missouri farm kid from a dirt-poor family who, in the early years of the 20th century, came to the university to get an education at the newly-opened school of Agriculture. But in his required freshman English class he is inspired by an acerbic professor and decides to turn his back on his farm roots and pursue an undergraduate degree, and then a graduate one in English Literature. When he completes his thesis, the university hires him on. Stoner marries and has a child, but the marriage is a disaster. He completes a book and receives tenure, but his career never really advances. His motivation to improve his teaching and pursue research waxes and wanes, the seasons come and go, and Stoner grows old.

The pivotal sequence in the novel is a confrontation between Stoner and an ambitious colleague, Hollis Lomax. Lomax has some physical defects, but an unimpeachable intellectual pedigree, having come to the university from getting his degree at Harvard. Their disagreement begins when Lomax manages to persuade Stoner to accept his graduate student into Stoner’s seminar; in Stoner’s estimation, the student does not perform adequately and receives an appropriate grade. Lomax disagrees, but their conflict comes to a head when department regulations force Stoner to sit on an examination committee for that same student.

Stoner is, as the reviews say, a quiet, powerful novel that explores the condition of an intellectual who is chooses and, simultaneously, is forced into increasing isolation. The students, for the most part, flash by as a faceless blur, not because Stoner doesn’t care, but because, at some point, they are all the same. The graduate students are essentially interchangeable, with two conspicuous exceptions, and the same could be said even of the professors. The world changes beyond the borders of the University, but Stoner’s life plods on.

The genius of the novel is that it is utterly relatable, particularly to someone who have spent any time on the other side of the classroom. Williams also does a remarkably good job at capturing the University of Missouri and its environs, so much so that multiple locations featured are easy to identify as real-world buildings. Likewise, everyone who has been in some of these situations has known graduate students and professors like those described in the story, both for good and for ill. Despite the tragic outcome and the consistently grim and oppressive atmosphere of the academy, there is a sense of purpose and vocation and therefore a dark, hopeless optimism in the story that did not appear in, for instance, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (the only other true campus novel I have read).

My main critique of the novel is not of execution, but of form. To me, it was immediately evident that Stoner was written by an English professor who is well-versed in narrative form. As a result, the turns in the story seemed inevitable, formulaic. The execution was excellent, nonetheless. I also hesitate to issue a blanket recommendation for Stoner because I wonder if it is a story that will fail to resonate with a wider audience as much as it does with people who have chased higher degrees in non-STEM fields, but I am adding it to my list of top novels.

January Reading Recap

  • Narcissus and Goldmund, Herman Hesse – Much like the rest of Hesse’s oevre, this novel is the story of male friendship and the different types of spiritual completion. Narcissus is an academic and a man of religion, while Goldmund is a young man who seeks experiences, but only finds satisfaction through art. Everything Hesse published is set in the German intellectual tradition of his lifetime, although his moralizing may be a bit more heavy-handed than in some of the other books. It is a good read if you like Hesse, but if you’re new to his work, start with Siddhartha, then move to Magister Ludi and if you haven’t lost interest yet, then pick up this one.
  • The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa – My favorite novel this month, and also the saddest, reviewed here. It the story of a life-long relationship between a translator, Ricardo, and the eponymous “Bad Girl.” He loves her, she abuses him; she stays with him for a while and leaves him for someone with more money. but she always comes back. It is a novel about love and obsession and one that continues to cling to me.
  • The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi – A sequel to Old Man’s War, this is a novel set in space, where humans are just one of a number of intelligent species vying for power and the human government uses the minds and experience of the elderly moved into genetically modified and advanced bodies. It is light and fun, clever and witty, as one would expect from Scalzi.

Life got a bit hectic when the semester started, so I only got through the three books this month. But I am also in the middle of reading A Cultural History of the Arabic Language and recently received a copy of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, which will probably be the next book I pick up.

The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa

Sometimes a book doesn’t seem particularly remarkable or memorable when you first finish it, but then it stays with you, festering. That is what happened to me with The Bad Girl. It is a story of old age. A good boy, Ricardo Somocurcio, meets the eponymous “Bad Girl” and becomes obsessed with her, even though she has a habit of disappearing without a trace only to reappear years later–a pattern that continues his entire life. This story is framed as Ricardo’s memories of his encounters for her and, for the most part, it is a pretty straightforward story of love and loss. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I came to Llosa through the list of Nobel laureates (he won in 2010) and had my interest piqued because his named kept coming up along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez as one of the titans of 20th century Latin American literature. The Bad Girl is the first of his book I have read, but, published in 2006, it is clearly a mature novel. As I said, a novel of old age, both in subject and in mood.

Ricardo Somocurcio is a teenage Peruvian from a family of moderate means. He has a bit of a talent for languages and a dream of living in Paris. One summer he meets a “Chilean” girl who comes to hang out with his friends and begins to date her, but toward the end of the summer she disappears. His life continues, he goes to Paris and becomes a translator and where the bad girl crosses paths with him several more times, each time in a different guise and with a different husband.

She treats the good boy badly. His income is insufficient for her and when she leaves him it is always for a man with more money and more power. But she also always comes back, asking him to tell her sweet, empty things about how much he loves her. And he does, both love her and tell her the words. He sees other women from time to time, but the bad girl is the only woman he actually loves with this much deep devotion. At the same time, the story takes place through the span of decades and there are subtle changes in the world that the non-couple inhabits.

I found myself sympathetic to Ricardo, as I imagine Llosa intended, but there was nothing in particular that jumped out as remarkable or memorable. I put down the book thinking to myself that he was not as powerful a character as the subject of other stories about obsession such as (for example) Humbert Humbert in Lolita. But, ironically, Ricardo’s mundane appearance amps up the pathos of the story, in large part because he manages to live up to the “good boy” moniker that the bad girl gives to him and the contrast between the two characters is extreme.

In a conversation about the new HBO show “Looking” on this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, Glen Weldon made a point that sex, whether on TV or books, is sometimes perceived as plot development rather than as added dialogue. Sex features prominently in the relationship between the good boy and the bad girl in this book and in a way that I found awkward and difficult. But it is part of the relationship that the two of them have and is in its own way touching, particularly because Llosa contrasts what they have with sexual dynamics that involve people other than just the two of them.

The Bad Girl is not a story of daring adventure or intrigue, but a study of affection, obsession, and, at times, love. It is pretty well paced, but that pacing is deliberate and subdued instead of intense and manic. When I had just finished the book, I thought that it was good, but a week on my appreciation for it has grown. The reason for this is that, on some level, I am still trying to work through the emotions that Llosa works the reader through and the dominant impression I am left with is profound sadness that few other books have elicited.