August 5, 2015
The Strange and Terrible Thing
I suppose I will never cease to be intrigued by how much easier it is to confess how I’m feeling to a perfect stranger rather than to the ones closer to me. It’s not that I don’t realise that there’s an explanation for it, I do: it is one about baggage attached to a familiar face or, in the case of the perfect stranger, the lack of it but it doesn’t make the whole affair any less intriguing.
Reading Stoner by John Williams made me feel like the stranger, someone who can but listen and is never allowed to retort.
It is simply a report of a life with no dramatic events of the kind that carry the plot to unexpected stories. It all happens in the same city and is focused around William Stoner’s ruminations, as he grows from a country boy to a university professor, about his parents, his family, his lover and his colleagues. It could be anyone’s life. It could be my own or yours with their failures and successes big and small and the pain that inevitably recedes into the distance and the shame and the joy and love.
The most accurate summary for the book would probably be “nothing happens” (and the point is driven home right on the opening paragraph), except that everything does. What truly happens is a lesson in refusing to let yourself be engulfed by those circles, wider each time, the circles of an increasingly blurred self, out of focus. A lesson in developing character, no matter how clumsily. A lesson in becoming more than just almost someone.
In that sense the story doesn’t need a retort at all. It is our story and we know it well:
He found himself trembling; as awkwardly as a boy he went around the coffee table and sat beside her. Tentatively, clumsily, their hands went out to each other; they clasped each other in an awkward, strained embrace; and for a long time they sat together without moving, as if any movement might let escape from them the strange and terrible thing that they held between them in a single grasp.