I cannot recommend Stoner by John Williams enough; not a single word is wasted in creating a life and exploring the passions, loves and failures of an individual throughout that life. These are the moments that history does not record:
Five days before the marriage took place the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour; and William Stoner watched the ceremony with a mixture of feeling that he had not had before. Like many others who went through that time, he was gripped by what he could think of only as a numbness, though he knew it was a feeling compounded of emotions so deep and intense that they could not be acknowledged because they could not be lived with. It was the force of a public tragedy he felt, a horror and a woe so all-pervasive that private tragedies and personal misfortunes were removed to another state of being, yet were intensified by the very vastness in which they took place, as the poignancy of a lone grave might be intensified by a great desert surrounding it. With a pity that was almost impersonal he watched the sad little ritual of the marriage and was oddly moved by the passive, indifferent beauty of his daughter’s face and by the sullen desperation on the face of the young man.
– From the novel Stoner by John Williams. Published by Vintage, 2012.
‘…the car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides and a dark wind blows. The government is corrupt and we’re on so many drugs with the radio on and the curtains drawn. We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine and the machine is bleeding to death. The sun has fallen down and the billboards are all leering and the flags are all dead at the top of their poles…’
I saw a triangle between fantasy, religion and law. I saw a watchful man with his hand on his hip and the law on his side, separated from the crowd by the machines speeding past. I saw politics, stories and figureheads of world religions mixed into one neon mixture, spat back out onto the maddening crowd below. I saw the Holy and the damned. The failures of a thousand people wrapped around the hopes of a few who never knew how much they had invested in this dream, this flashing light paranoia of a thousand suggestions and a hundred hooks wriggling with the baited breath of hope. The engine of a city, hot air shouted up into the sky to meet the cold winds blowing in from the Atlantic.
Digital photograph by the author, if reproduced please credit as appropriate.
The city was huge, dauntingly huge. Densely packed, the people but ants compared to the towering skyscrapers above and the labyrinthine subway below. It was exhilarating, confusing, suffocating. It was beautiful. It was freedom in anonymity, in wave after wave of people crossing block after block: all with a story to tell, all with their own individual lives. I heard every language in the world, I saw every skin tone a human can have. I lived a thousand lives. I lived my own life, with tensions brought bubbling to the surface and safety sought in solitude. Love resided, not passionate romantic love but familial bonds broken by petty remarks and re-made by breaking bread and sharing food. A mother’s tears in the taxi rank. Discussions never had were evaporated at the thought stage, vibrated free by the hum of the stop-start vehicles choking the roads. Directions not sought were instead shouted at by uniformed staff, hushed into lines, finger printed and bags searched. Made to feel guilt by association. You are an individual, you are the American dream. You are the foundations turned into a crystalline memorial. You are the kind individual who helped me to the front of the queue. You are the tramp dying of heart failure, the homeless that hang around the port authority building looking for a break. You are the actor on Broadway who signs autographs on the sidewalk after the show and then anonymously melts into the night. You are in the queue at Shake Shack, awaiting your turn, your accent rebounding into the heat of the September sun. You are the man who stands and pounds the tarmac, shouting ‘Jesus saves!’ whilst waving your homemade sign aloft in a salute to the holy. You are the cab driver who never talked, the policeman who joked on the corner. You are the band leader who was nervous to speak on the Radio City stage but held the audience in the palm of your hand. You are the deli counter assistant who cannot understand my British accent. You are the ant that makes this city run. You are the love that lingers in my heart.
Photograph by the author using a cheap digital camera, if re-used please credit as appropriate.
I am currently reading Anne Norton’s 2013 book entitled ‘On The Muslim Question‘ which explores the West’s own view of Islam and it’s perceived threat through a perceptive breakdown of the West’s own ideals. Touching on subjects as broad as the freedom of speech, terror, violence, human right’s women’s dress and sexuality, Norton delivers a powerful thesis on the meaning of democracy, helping to deconstruct the so called clash of civilization’s between the West and Islam. In particular (and I’m starting to sound like the blurb of the book now) it gets to the meat and the bones of what the meaning behind equality, liberty and fraternity is for the Western world by using the political, philosophical and theological to explore the current Western mentality.
This book is not what I thought it was going to be, but it is something that I am glad I am reading, something that I wish a few of my friends would (but never could) read. In particular this passage struck home:
“An honest reading of Qutb would raise difficult questions for people in the West- especially for Americans and for the French who still claim allegiance to liberty, equality, and fraternity. They would be obliged to recognise their abandonment of the ideal of equality. They would be be obliged to listen to Muslim critics like Qutb- and to Western critics like Alain Badiou, Pete Singer, and Stéphane Hessel. They would be obliged to admit that the man without money is something less than a brother. They would be obliged to recognise that inequality is the enemy of liberty.” (Norton 2013: 116).
By posing the title the author recalls ‘the Jewish question’ of the 19th and 20th centuries, but are the two the same for the Western world in this context? I am not sure and I nearly hesitated in picking up this book, and that would have been a mistake. I hope this body of work reaches a wider audience, especially at this crucial time where war is talked about yet again as a means of employing so called stability. The key question on the completion of this book is ‘does this book offer a solution or a means to address the issues that it raises?’, the sad answer would be that no it does not. It is still worth your time however.