The novel cure: Passivity

Literary prescriptions for modern ailments

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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Passivity

Cure: Stoner by John Williams

Passivity can seem like the safest option. Why speak up/get one's hands dirty/risk failure when you can watch from the sidelines, and see how it all pans out? The answer, of course, is because while you're watching, Rome may fall; lives may be broken; loves lost. And at the end of your life, as you stand amid the debris, you won't be able to say, "At least I did everything I could".

For William Stoner – the farmboy-turned-English-professor of John Williams's Sixties rediscovery, and the surprise bestseller of 2013 – passivity seems part of his inheritance. Stoner's mother views her life "as if it were a long moment she had to endure". He's expected to do the same. When shown another sort of life – studying Literature at Columbia, then staying on as an English teacher – he reaches out with his thin, gangly wrists, and grasps it.

But this one self-serving act seems to exhaust him, and for the rest of the story we are forced to bear witness as he stands by and allows all that had seemed good to turn sour – his marriage to Edith, his career and, most heart-rendingly, his relationship with his beloved daughter, Grace. Stoner is Grace's sole carer for the first six years of her life. Then one day Edith comes home with her hair bobbed, a smoking habit and a shrill new voice, and proceeds to whisk Grace off to parties in stiff dresses.

Stoner accepts his fate with the mute passivity suggested by his name – and it maddens us. We defy you to read this quiet, haunting novel without raging, internally, that Stoner should let himself be so downtrodden, so overlooked.

But why waste your breath on Stoner? We're told of his death on the very first page. Put both the novel and your passivity away, and start standing up for yourself.

'The Novel Cure, An A-Z of Literary Remedies' (Canongate, £17.99);