Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book review: Stoner

John William's novel Stoner was published in 1965, but has recently enjoyed a slight return to appreciation thanks to a reprint from New York Review Books. I'd stumbled across a couple of reviews of it over last few months, and since all of them were very positive I ordered the book and looked forward to it with much anticipation.

Thankfully, this was rewarded. Stoner is a quiet, well-observed novel of some considerable emotional heft. It's the story of William Stoner, a young man from rural Missouri in the early 20th century. Sent by his farming family to study the new Agriculture degree at the university, Stoner is instead entranced by the compulsory English literature course he takes, and changes degree (without telling his parents until graduation day). From there, he continues with postgraduate study and teaching, eventually making a full-time career of it. At the same time, he meets, falls for & marries Edith, and Stoner is the story of his two relationships: with his career and with his wife.

At a little under 300 pages, Stoner takes us through its protagonist's life from 18 through to the end of his career in his mid-60s, yet never feels rushed. It's a slow, quiet story, and thus finds the perfect marriage of form & content, since Stoner the man is also slow, quiet and low key. He finds his feet as a lecturer, becoming popular on campus, but also making an enemy of one of his colleagues in the department. Meanwhile, his marriage to Edith descends fairly quickly into a mutual disappointment (it is clear from early on that she doesn't particularly care for him at all), and thus Stoner finds his main satisfactions in life through his teaching.

Williams' prose throughout is spare, simple and beautiful. The main characters - Stoner, Edith, and his best friend Gordon Finch - are all well-drawn, although Edith sometimes edges a little close to being cruel to Stoner for its own sake. (Although this can be explained by the novel presenting his side of their relationship.) Lomax, Stoner's nemesis, seems mostly to serve as a plot device, rather than as a character in his own right, but again: his relationship to Stoner is essentially that of an obstacle.

There are several fine university novels, and for obvious reasons I am a fan of the genre. With Stoner, I think John Williams has written one of the best. NYRB has also published another of his novels, Butcher's Crossing, and soon after I finished Stoner I jumped online and ordered it. Recommendations from me don't come much higher than that...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book review: The Beautiful and Damned

F. Scott Fitzgerald's second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, was published in 1922. Like This Side of Paradise, there are clearly some autobiographical themes here, even to those who know little about Fitzgerald's life. Most obviously, central characters Anthony and Gloria are in some ways representative of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda.

Moving on a bit from his first novel, the focus here is on characters in their mid to late twenties, and the sense of tragedy which hangs over The Beautiful and Damned (from title on down) goes deeper than the atmosphere of Fitzgerald's debut. Anthony Patch is the only grandson of famed industrial-turned-moral reformer Adam Patch, and grows up in a life of moderate privilege with the expectation of more to come. Through the first part of the novel, we spend time with him and his friends, eventually settling on his up & down relationship with the beautiful & self-absorbed Gloria. The two get married, and essentially spend the rest of the novel spending more money than they have, getting depressed about that fact, and continuing on anyway. Anthony finds the idea of work anathema. In many ways his generation for whom the idea of working for a living was not an automatic assumption: think of Anthony as the American equivalent of one of Bertie Wooster's poorer friends, a class who don't quite have enough money to live without working but who nonetheless believe that earning a salary is beneath them.

Fitzgerald charts Anthony & Gloria's decline as they run through their resources with a remorseless eye. It's very hard to feel sympathetic to either of them - their good intentions of spending less or actually earning money through any kind of work never last longer than a day or two. Pure inertia seems to be their defining characteristic, as they find it easier to drink the days and nights away. And, in one of the novel's cruelest themes, they never really enjoy themselves either - their extravagance mostly consists in drinking near-constantly, but mostly in a desperate way, and in living in houses which are just outside their means, but which they are still underwhelmed by. Perhaps key to this novel is that the title has only the one definite article: it's not The Beautiful and The Damned, but The Beautiful and Damned. The Beautiful are, perhaps inherently, Damned.

The ending of The Beautiful and Damned, which I have no intention of giving away, is something I am a bit uncertain about: I'm not sure if it's a perfect conclusion or a bad flub by Fitzgerald. Either way, it completely reversed my expectations, so I guess that's usually a plus. Right now, having only just finished reading, I think he got it right, but I can see how one might make the case that it went the other way.

If all of this sounds unbearably depressing, it's saved by Fitzgerald's customary lightness of prose. Even in some early passages which describe the working class in terms that would make C. Montgomery Burns blush, Fitzgerald has an eye for the spot-on description or effortlessly memorable phrase. I particularly liked his description of a conversation between Anthony and his two closest friends early in the book: "They are engaged in one of those easy short-speech conversationsthat only men under thirty or men under great stress indulge in", and also a later passing description of a Lieutenant Kretching: "[He] was considered a good fellow and a fine leader, until a year later, when he disappeared with a mess fund of eleven hundred dollars and, like so many leaders, proved exceedingly difficult to follow". That has nothing to do with anything in the story, but it's an indication of the small things that great writers get right.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book review: Pilcrow

So, the posting here has been pretty sparse lately, I realise. Semester starting and all sorts of other things going on will do that. I will try harder to maintain a more-regular posting schedule from now on...

First, credit where it's due: I read Pilcrow after reading the wonderful reviews of it & Cedilla (which we'll get to in a moment) over at the wonderful book-reviewin' blog Asylum. If you're interested in thoughtful reviews of interesting books on a regular basis, I recommend you keep an eye on that blog.

Anyway, Pilcrow is the first book in a (proposed) four-volume novel by British writer Adam Mars-Jones tracking the life of its narrator, John Cromer. (The aforementioned Cedilla, volume two, was published late last year.) Pilcrow is also the name of the paragraph-break punctuation mark that you're probably familiar with if you've done much of the accursed Track Changes in MS Word.

Pilcrow (the novel) begins - after a brief flash-forward to him learning to drive - with John's boyhood in 1950s England. He is a curious (as in, interested) boy, probably fairly typical in a lot of ways for 1950s English children. His father was a pilot in the war, and is emotionally reserved towards his family (again, fairly typically, I suspect, although there are also hints that his nature goes beyond this), and his mother is the dominant figure in his life - something of a snob, perhaps even a social climber. The early sections of the book lay out this life in a low-key way, setting the scene for the change that drives most of the rest of the story: when still quite young (five or thereabouts), John is struck with a rare illness that vastly reduces his mobility. Essentially, he loses all movement in his legs, and most of that in his arms. Confined to his bed, and needing near-constant care from his mother, John's life takes a significant turn.

Through the rest of Pilcrow, we follow John up until his mid-to-late teens. He eventually moves from his home to a hospital, where he stays for several years until moving to a school for handicapped children. During that time he undergoes the things that almost everyone does during those ages (emotional and intellectual developments, sexual awakening, struggles with friends and family), plus of course the issues brought on by his near-total immobility.

And that's about it, plot-wise. Thankfully, Mars-Jones is interested enough in the premise and characters of his story to not overstuff the plot. Through John's narration (from a later age), he are taken slowly, but always compellingly, through what it might have been like to grow up as John: the narrator's voice is wonderfully done, and the sizeable array of supporting characters are evocatively described. Few of them are as deftly-drawn as John's mother, although some of his schoolmates & teachers are strikingly well-observed (I have a special fondness for the spying/secret agent-obsessed Julian). Rather than an inherently-propulsive plot, what makes Pilcrow such a pleasure to read are the small details: Mars-Jones has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what John's life would have entailed. And he describes it all in a pitch-perfect voice - while John is perhaps more reflective than the average child, the combination of his reflection-encouraging circumstances and the fact that the book is narrated from later in his life means that Mars-Jones avoids the pitfalls of the rarely not-annoying implausibly brilliant child narrator.

Doubtless a 525 page book with a distinct absence of whiz-bang plottery is not for everybody - especially when the book sorta just ends, with three books to come (Cedilla, I should note, is even longer - 700+ pages in hardcover). But those who are willing to delve into John Cromer's life will find much to enjoy, from the consistently sparkling prose and well-imagined characters to the various set pieces throughout. Pilcrow is a novel to move through slowly, not a novel to race through, but neither did it ever feel like a slog. I'm now eager to get (& get into) Cedilla, even though that will still mean a few years (presumably) until the next volume comes out.