Adam Keogh is one of The Suburban Review’s Norwich-based crew members. He is from Co. Wicklow, Ireland, and studies at the University of East Anglia. He writes shorts stories and is currently working on his first novel. He’ll be taking part in this year’s Noted festival in Canberra on the 16th March via live stream!
The last book I read was Stoner by John Williams. It was one of those books that kept popping up again and again in conversations with friends, so when I happened across it in a secondhand bookshop a few months ago, I bought it and put it on my shelf and then forgot about it again. I eventually picked it up a few weeks back, having no idea what it was about, thinking actually that it was some sort of contemporary drug diary along the lines of Junkie or Trainspotting, and so when I started it I was fairly baffled at first. Here was this book about a Southern farmhand-turned-academic, told in fairly emotionless, flat prose, that skipped across the months and years and decades of the early twentieth century in the space a of a few pages or even paragraphs. I’d been so used to reading a kind of cinematic, scenic prose, where we inhabit the most significant spaces and moments of a particular story, that to be presented with this roving, zoomed out view of a life felt pretty jarring.
But as I read on, I found myself getting sucked in more and more. The remarkable thing about Stoner is how Williams so consistently disregards what has become the cardinal rule of Creative Writing doctrine—show, don’t tell. He tells us in no uncertain terms exactly how his characters feel, what they’re thinking, and the overarching significance of their actions. He doesn’t bother with poignant moments of tenderness or with reading between the lines. He lays out the details of Stoner’s life in a sort of passionless blow-by-blow, insignificant beginning to insignificant end. And while that may sound fairly boring on the face of it, it actually ends up creating a story that’s all the more affecting for its flatness. Stoner himself is unremarkable, diligent, inattentive to his wife and child, ineffectual in his work and studies, affable, bland, nice enough, we suppose. He loves swiftly and strongly, and then not at all. He teaches sometimes well, sometimes not. He experiences flashes of anger, passion, beauty, but mostly just drifts on, indifferent. The story of his life is powerful because it feels sad and true in its disappointments and failures and fleeting moments of happiness. We get to know him, we follow him, we might even get to like him, and then, like everyone else in his life, we forget about him.
I found myself feeling very, very sad reading the final few pages of this book, having not quite realised until that point what it had been doing to me. Quietly and carefully, Williams had laid out the facts and figures of an unremarkable life in the hopes that something significant could be found among them, and as I came to the end, it seemed to me that it could. Literature, it says, needn’t always be about the big and the bold and the beautiful. Williams reminds us that mediocrity can have its own kind of power, because that’s the reality in which so many of us live.