Executive summary: it is still an extraordinarily good piece of writing, although not the piece of perfection that some have deemed it. As a piece of prose composition it deserves highest marks—best thing I’ve read in English since Housekeeping (link) Individual sentences, paragraphs, pages, display great power and intensity. He recounts a love affair with precision and tact—I can find a snigger 90 yards away in a snowstorm, and there is none here. And a dying: he skirts the edge of, but never tumbles over, the cliff of mawkishness.
Aside from the protagonist, most of the characters are pretty much set-pieces. Indeed as I guess I did say before, his wife, Edith—the monster—is a convincing piece of villainy, but I find myself extending my sympathy to her. As one can say of a lot of people: it couldn’t be fun to be around her, but it must be even less fun to be her; I’m curious to hear her side of the story.
Stoner himself probably is a kind of “hero,” as the author wants to characterize him. But he’s a spectacularly passive hero, and this is the real issue: Stoner’s passivity damages not only himself but those around him, and you find yourself almost wanting to shake him to get him out of his box. Indeed, he does execute one bit of nerdy sabotage in mid-career: it’s mean and clever and effective and you can only wish he would do more.
If not for himself, then maybe for Edith, the villainous wife –even for the reader, it is almost past bearing that they had to live yoked together so hatefully for 40 years. Or for Katherine, the mistress whom Stoner, without lifting a finger, let walk out of his life (he hardly deserved the book dedication). Or if not for Edith or Katherine, then at least for the daughter. Yes, the daughter, Grace. He owed her better. No doubt that he loved her, but Loving is Doing Something About It, and Stoner did almost nothing about it at all.
Which brings me back to Mrs. B. I had said that I liked Stoner, but I didn’t think as highly of him as the author did. But that, Mrs. B said, is what makes it such an interesting novel: the character takes on such a life of his own that not even his author understands what he has done.
Well, fair point. This misunderstanding does add some texture, and since it was a good novel to begin with, I guess this makes it a very good novel, indeed.