About jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Humanities at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press (2001). He lives with his wife Carole, two Jack Russell terriers, Jett & Penny, & a Chocolate Lab, Angel, on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

A Perfect Novel?

I have just finished reading John Williams’ Stoner. It’s one of those books I’ve been vaguely aware of for many years without feeling compelled to read it, but I came across a copy the other day, picked it up & was drawn very quickly into the precision of its language & perfection of its portrayals of stymied disappointment.

Tim Greider’s 2013 New Yorker essay on the novel begins:

In one of those few gratifying instances of belated artistic justice, John Williams’s “Stoner” has become an unexpected bestseller in Europe after being translated and championed by the French writer Anna Gavalda. Once every decade or so, someone like me tries to do the same service for it in the U.S., writing an essay arguing that “Stoner” is a great, chronically underappreciated American novel. (The latest of these, which also lists several previous such essays, is Morris Dickstein’s for the Times.) And yet it goes on being largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti, and its author, John Williams, consigned to that unenviable category inhabited by such august company as Richard Yates and James Salter: the writer’s writer.

I am, then, a belated member, apparently, of the “bookish cognoscenti,” but a grateful one, for this is the closest thing to a perfect novel that I have read: in addition to the qualities mentioned above, the construction of the story–through the use of point of view & especially through the subtle presentation of the movement of time & consciousness–never once falters. Morris Dickstein’s 2007 NY Times essay begins:

Since academic novels usually focus on the nasty rivalries and inflated egos of their characters, they have served as vehicles for broad satire, not serious themes. One great exception is Willa Cather’s 1925 novel, “The Professor’s House.” Cather used the traditional calling of a scholar and the atrophy of his marriage to convey her own growing alienation from the modern world. Her novel has only one successor, another book that invokes the life of learning as a rebuke to the wasteful wars and cheap compromises of the wider world. John Williams’s “Stoner” is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.

All true. The point of view of the novel is easy to describe, but its effects difficult to convey. Written in the third-person, the narrator’s omniscience is limited to the title character’s consciousness; the framing is also retrospective & elegiac–the reader knows that the story is being told after Stoner’s death. And at maybe half-a-dozen points in the novel, the narrator leaps briefly into the future before going on with the largely chronological presentation of a single life, from young manhood to a premature death. That span of time makes the various incidents of William Stoner’s life symbolic. Realistically described, the events of the novel represent the turning points in a human life and–I think this is true–in many, if not all, human lives: intellectual awakening, love & the failure of love, ambition & the failure of ambition, resignation (retirement) without despair. Life is impossible, this novel says, but must be lived honestly, which is to say heroically.

He Hasn’t Been Posting Anything: Maybe He’s Been Reading

Going into summer with a sabbatical (& trip to Hanoi) on the far side of it, I haven’t had much writing mojo, though that feels like it’s about to change. I have been reading voraciously & indiscriminately, however:

The Brothers Karamazov: One of those big 19th century novels I never got around to reading until now. Is it as great as The Idiot? Probably, but I’m still more drawn to Myshkin than to any of the three Karamazov brothers. I’ve always wanted to write a poem with the line “I am not Prince Myshkin nor was meant to be,” but have never found a context for anything so arch.

Incomplete Nature by Terrence W. Deacon: One of those big philosophical books by a scientist that confronts the big problems that science would like to pretend have been solved or don’t matter. Deacon proposes, with a great deal of detail & a series of rigorous arguments, to show how mind emerges from nature. I wish an editor had been a little more strict with the prose, but after finishing this long book I put it aside for a week, then picked it up & read through it again.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler: Philip Marlowe at his most incisive & laconic. A work of genre fiction that confronts moral ambiguity as only a great work of literature can. The language is crisp & loaded with nuance. (This sounds like a book blurb because I’d have to write an entire essay to do justice to my admiration for Chandler’s novel.)

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré: Toby Bell, like all of le Carré’s good guys, is going to suffer terribly for doing the right thing, while the bastards who did the wrong thing will almost certainly find ways to slither to safety. It is le Carré’s genius to show the process by which an ordinary man (it’s almost always a man) achieves moral clarity, then to show how he will be punished for acting on that clarity.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson: Since undergraduate days I have had an equivocal relationship to Emerson (while absolutely loathing Thoreau). As an example of biography, Richardson’s volume seems a nearly perfect exemplar of the Big Bio genre, gracefully detailed but with strong narrative motion. Emerson was among the first Americans to really grapple with Cartesian dualism & while he comes down too close to Plato for me to find him convincing, he really made a run at finding how mind emerges from nature. Richardson’s portrait also frees Emerson from a lot of the Transcendentalist goo that has stuck to him over time.

Seveneves by by Neal Stephenson: I’ve only read one other Stephenson novel (Snow Crash), having given up on The Diamond Age because of the cloying cuteness of a central character & a general sense of undigested sentimentalism. Snow Crash invents a plausible near-future techtopia with characters as subtle as any in literary fiction; Seveneves also creates a believable world that makes the end of life on earth its dramatic backdrop. (Though in addition to the seven Eves & their eden, there is also a Noah’s Ark–more than one, actually. The action starts in the relatively near future, but then leaps mid-way some thousands of years into the future. Surprisingly, the plot survives this fast-forwarding. I’m hoping for a sequel.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson: Another space opera. The plot is pedestrian, characters flat, and the ending diffuse: as a novel, this book is a mess, but it is nevertheless compelling g as an argument for what might be called biological pluralism. Robinson argues that “life is a planetary phenomenon,” by which he means that organisms (including humans) cannot thrive–or even survive–in biospheres other than the one in which they evolved. Intersteller colonies will inevitably fail.