Category: Writing

All Saints, by K. D. Miller

November 4, 2014

“It’s my fix,” K. D. Miller said of writing. One or two of the other writers in the venue, all reading from their Rogers Writer’s Trust 2014 shortlisted books, had commented wryly on how personally difficult and possibly pointless writing was. Miller said she couldn’t live without it, and that, for her, a day without writing was itself difficult.

“All Saints” is evidence of a writer who must write, not merely one who can. It’s a book of ten short stories centred, sometimes tangentially, around the fictional All Saints Anglican church in Toronto. The stories flow from one to the next naturally, with threads hinted at in one appearing fully formed in another, irrespective of the order of presentation in the book. This almost gives the work the sense of a novel, though the studies contained in some of the stories would not have worked in that form.

The best stories are strongly linked. Whereas the most recurrent character is that of Simon, the new rector of the parish with a tragic personal history who appears to teeter on the brink of agnosticism, my favourite stories involve Emily. We follow her from the early 1970s in “What They Have”, where she’s a hippie in a disorganized relationship with her lover and his friends, to more recently in “Return”. Here, a stroke has felled her, and a strangely reactive totem horse lingers on the periphery of her awareness, invading the course reality of the hospital room to which she’s confined. Emily is a lovely character, manifold and inward-looking, and for me invokes an odd nostalgia and sympathy I could not find for any other. As a special treat, adding a weird depth to both her and the collection itself, she is hinted at as the author of the very first story in the book.

At the Writer’s Trust reading, Miller said that some of the stories had been brewing for twenty years or more. This would seem to make the link to All Saints tenuous, and it is in “Kim’s Game”, the story of an elderly odd-man-out whose utter humiliation at a writing retreat threatens to turn pathos into unintentional parody. The link is also easy to forget in “Magnificat”, where a sadomasochistic relationship is observed from both near and far at the same moment. The life of Alice Vipond in two other of the stories, one of which concludes the book, might also have come about separately from the concept of the church. No matter, as the collection overall is strong, and the locus of All Saints an apt anchor, itself a creaking, failing character.

At the end of the reading, while getting my copy signed, I asked K. D. Miller if the stories could possibly be autobiographical. I thought this was reasonable: most characters are middle aged and beyond, and the evocation of other, earlier times was concrete and well drawn. Although I later had a George Costanza moment–maybe referencing autobiography in a work that included S&M and shit-smeared writers was not the most poignant use of the few seconds I had with her–I thought the question was more or less fair. She paused slightly, and looked at me above the rim of her glasses while sliding the signed book back to me across the table. “I’ll let you decide that,” she said.

Fair enough.

Stoner, by John Williams

November 18, 2013

The back cover of the NYRB edition of “Stoner” quotes a reviewer who calls the book not merely a great novel, but “a perfect novel”. I’m not sure what kind of book a perfect novel is. “Stoner”, told in a narrative style of a different time in writing, is certainly a great novel, almost antithetically so. If a perfect novel is that which gives the reader perfect satisfaction, in the story and the way it’s told, and in admiration for the deftness with which the story is written, then “Stoner” is perfect.

It’s the story of the complete life of university professor William Stoner, from beginning to end, and his existential consideration of purpose. He begins life on the spent land of a poor Missouri farming family. When he is sent to university to study agriculture, he accidentally discovers his love of literature and books. He marries a psychotic shrew, battles with university politics and its petty dictators, finds brief happiness with another woman, and submits to all manner of humiliation from his wife and his adversarial colleagues. Stoner’s passion for literature and teaching is the only channel that directs his life in a true course.

Throughout his life, meaning eludes him. He seems always on the cusp of disappearing into a permanent state of apathy. He is often in a “silent struggle that seemed toward no end and no meaning.” When larger emotions overtake him, he is unable to participate in them, but instead becomes an observer of himself, curious about some sudden tide of anger, for example, but detached from its full impact. Some of his battles are impossible–the love of his wife, or reconciliation with his most implacable enemy–but some are won, as when the rigours of his schedule of teaching become too much to bear. Throughout, his cool impassivity, his experience of life as a kind of out-of-body experience, carries him from one deep disappointment to another. Even when faced with death, “Stoner felt nothing at all.” The only flicker of meaning he recognizes, the only possible hope for any kind of happiness, lies in the university itself, in its halls filled with memories, in teaching, and especially in literature and books, this even to the very last moment of his life.

There are two problems facing “Stoner”: first, this is mean material. Is it possible to write a novel, never mind a “great”, a “perfect” novel, out of this? If one had to describe the novel succinctly, it might be: “‘Stoner’ is the story of an often-frustrated career professor of literature”; or: “‘Stoner’ is an existential study of meaninglessness and unhappiness as experienced by a lover of books.” On surface, it isn’t captivating stuff.

The second problem for latter-day readers, especially if unengaged with literature not written recently, is the book’s language. A surprising amount of time is invested in describing individuals’ features, especially as their characters progress, sometimes in a way that seems earnest or even archaic: those wizened by years or enmity have “sharp cheekbones”, passionate women have eyes that “flash”; people are “gray”, “gaunt”, “bony”, “stooped”, “dry”, and “hard”. Facial flesh droops, hair is “caught in a bun”, and feet scrape perennially. Most latter-day writing seems to completely eschew personal description in favour of other kinds of character drawing, and such attention to what may seem cliched detail might carry readers out of the narrative.

“Stoner” is a narrative-heavy book. Dialogue is spare, and often artificial. Some language in the book is unlovely: a passage of time is described as happening “afternoon after afternoon”.

For all this, “Stoner” works, especially as an existential examination of a whole life and what might make one life meaningful. William Stoner is a sympathetic character, but also a real one. His placid movement through life, with its flow of disappointments and islands of happiness, seems real. His opposition to mediocrity, or to false intellectualism, or to grasping personal advancement at the expense of the honesty of others, is well drawn. There is something deeply satisfying about taking the journey along an entire life. One can inhabit the life of William Stoner, something possible only with a finely crafted narrative.

Though written in a different era of literature, perhaps one on the cusp of a shift toward the more self-aware experimentalist kind of writing as represented by Renata Adler’s “Speedboat”, “Stoner” is a worthy contender even today for the title of “perfect novel”.