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The Puppet Master

In the novels of John Williams, everything happens suddenly and signifies nothing

Arthur Maxley, moneyed burnout, looks across the room of a club one evening and becomes aware of a girl with “perfectly formed breasts.” Her lipstick is red, as is her dress; she has, when they begin to talk, a soothing voice. She is, for Maxley, a “woman of mystery whom all adored and no one knew.” Later, he will go with this woman (her name is Claire) to her apartment, and, as she begins to embrace him, punch her repeatedly in the face. Then somebody interrupts, punching him in the face, and Arthur Maxley wanders off, seemingly unaffected by either of these experiences.

The set of perfect breasts and their aftermath form the back half of John Williams’s disowned debut novel, Nothing but the Night, which follows Arthur for a day as he wakes up from a nightmare and then goes about his business, eating vengefully at a diner and harassing his maid. He is estranged from his father for mysterious reasons which have something to do with the death of his mother. He meets up with an acquaintance, a very broadly written gay man, toward whom Arthur feels “active dislike, even spite.” Unsatisfying encounters with both his friend and his father lead him ultimately to the club, and to Claire.

How one ought to approach a book which has been rejected by its author is a delicate question. Certainly, Williams deserves credit for realizing that what he’d written was fairly awful. But while he might not have wanted the book to be republished, now that it has been, it’s worth asking the degree to which Nothing but the Night illuminates aspects of Williams’s mature work. Everything that makes his other books so terrible, it turns out, is here.

If you know John Williams, you likely know him from Stoner, his 1965 novel about the unremarkable life and death of an English professor at a little college in the Midwest. Since it was republished in 2006, and again in 2015, several articles have proclaimed Stoner some variation of “the best novel you’ve never heard of.” It’s a book that consists, in the words of one critic at The New Yorker, of “quiet, transcendent moments that make the hair on your arms stand up for reasons you can’t name, giving you glimpses of eternity through the darkening view out an office window on a winter night.” “I consider myself blessed to have found this novel, whose every page reminds me why I write,” writes another critic, who also has a book, forthcoming this summer, called John Williams’s Stoner and the Battle for Inner Life. A recent biography of John Williams is titled, upfront, The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel, that novel being (naturally) Stoner.

Unsurprisingly, Williams is often referred to by that funny moniker, “the writer’s writer.” This title is sometimes described as “unenviable,” but if really were so unenviable it seems unlikely that writers would always be giving it to their favorites. Nor do I often see the title bestowed on the sort of writer who might be genuinely hard to read. Richard Yates is another “writer’s writer,” and Revolutionary Road is a beautiful book; however, if people aren’t reading it, it’s not because any special tools are required.

It would be hard to know which of the many books I have not heard of is the best—after all, I haven’t heard of them.

Indeed, “writer’s writer” often seems a clubby way to get around admitting appreciation for books that could also be summed up by the term “middlebrow”—good, but in certain ways, unambitious. In the same New Yorker article that praises Stoner for giving us glimpses of eternity, the critic laments the brief, movie-enabled popularity of Revolutionary Road: “Seeing all those commuters reading Yates’s pitiless novel was like watching people drink arsenic marketed as smart water.” Imagine commuters reading such a novel—a novel that is about, among other things, commuters.

As for its other laurels, it would be hard to know which of the many books I have not heard of is the best—after all, I haven’t heard of them—but it would probably not be Stoner, which has the interesting distinction of being, despite all this recent advocacy, not very good at all. None of Williams’s books are very good, in fact, with the possible exception of his final novel, Augustus; his prose is heavy and drugged, his descriptions florid without conveying much information.

His books are also misogynistic. Women in his novels are frigid, they are bitches, they are, usually, stupid; at their best, they are a liability. In Nothing but the Night, Arthur Maxley’s life is ruined by watching his mother (with whom he has a somewhat Oedipal fascination) go mad, shoot his father, and then kill herself. Stoner rapes his wife; she, in turn, is a vindictive monster. In Butcher’s Crossing, the sight of a naked prostitute prompts the novel’s young hero to bolt from the room, “assailed by the knowledge that others had seen this face as he was seeing it now”; when he returns, he sleeps with her, but remains detached. She is clear to him throughout their sexual encounters that she is sleeping with him out of desire and not for money, but when he leaves her for the last time, he leaves money behind him regardless.

Still, hatred of women can take a novelist interesting places; the eye of hate can be almost as observant as the eye of love, and a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist often hates men as much or even more than women. But Williams’s women characters are reflective of the degree to which other people simply don’t interest him. His works contain very little genuine feeling or observation. The woman of mystery must wear a red dress—another color would be insufficiently obvious; her breasts must be perfect, but you, the reader, must fill in what that’s supposed to mean. The dress could float suspended and filled-out in the air; in a sense, nothing would really change.

The first thing you notice, when you start reading Nothing but the Night, is that no one knows why they do anything. “Things,” to quote Arthur Maxley, “just happen.” When he goes into the club where he will eventually meet Claire, Maxley wonders, “why had he come into this place?”

Then suddenly he believed that for whatever happened to him for as long he lived, no blame could be attached to himself. For he did not act, he had never acted from his own volition. Some unnameable power pushed him from one place to another, down paths he had no wish to travel, through doors he did not know and had no wish to know. All was dark and nameless and he walked in darkness.

For the reader of the book, who can name the power that pushes Maxley hither and thither—i.e., John Williams—the suddenness which with things just happen can grate. On the first seven pages of Nothing but the Night, I counted seven “suddenly”s. To be fair, those pages recount a dream, in which things do tend to happen, well, suddenly. But after Maxley awakens and leaves his apartment to go out to a park, “quite suddenly, he knew that he would not go into the park.” He goes instead to a café, where “all at once he discovered he was becoming depressed,” and then walks back home, where his apartment building appears “so suddenly that he swerved in sharp surprise.” A thought comes to him “suddenly with an almost physical blow”; he understands things “with a sudden and rather amused clarity.” Two pages later, he is “suddenly ashamed.” Things happen suddenly in Stoner at least forty times; in Butcher’s Crossing, fifty-three.

Can anything happen to a person quite so suddenly quite so much? The heroes of these stories move through space much like the rest of us, but that space is itself not rendered very clearly; not to us, and, apparently, not to them. Nor do they have much of a grasp on their inner lives, which is why they seem to exist in constant state of bewilderment at themselves. The outer world is almost entirely constructed to gesture at a kind of interiority—fair enough, it is a novel—but the content of that interiority is also, somehow, missing.

In fact, Williams’s language is always suggesting an experience without exactly supplying it. Here, for instance, in Stoner, is the moment when the titular character finds his calling in literature upon hearing Shakespeare read out loud—a moment that, quite literally, changes his life:

William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs. . . . Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight. Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marveling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nails fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body.

Sloane was speaking again. “What does he say to you, Mr. Stoner? What does his sonnet mean?”

Stoner’s eyes lifted slowly and reluctantly. “It means,” he said, and with a small movement raised his hands up toward the air; he felt his eyes glaze over as they sought the figure of Archer Sloane. “It means,” he said again, and could not finish what he had begun to say.

This moment is the closest Stoner ever comes to literary criticism; not only does he not say anything about the sonnet, he isn’t even thinking about it. Later, Stoner will fall under departmental disapproval for being a rigorous scholar unimpressed by the intellectual flourishes of a flashy young graduate student. But we don’t really have a reason to think he is especially rigorous because we never observe him at work. We don’t ever get to find out what he thinks a sonnet means, or if he thinks that such a question is stupid, or if his understanding of this sonnet shifts over time.

Instead, Stoner provides a canvas for the reader to project themselves into. To read this passage is to be reminded of falling in love with the serious reading of books, but Stoner himself does not fall in love; he merely becomes aware of something happening to him. In Williams’s books, you don’t so much read about as play a character, and that is why his characters experience life as an endless series of happenings, the same way that playing Final Fantasy VI produces an endless series of happenings. Take a few steps on the map and a monster attacks you; walk down the street and be suddenly confronted by your own address. The maladjustments of these characters are flattering to you because to be well-adjusted is worse: Stoner lives a life of misery because he is unappreciated and misunderstood by those around him, who do not share his pure love of literature or even really his capacity for love at all. If he rapes his wife, it’s only because that is the way she can receive him. And indeed, the term Williams uses for the rape, in Stoner, is simply “his love.”

When Arthur Maxley has an awkward dinner with his father, he finds that he feels as if “he was alone and solely important in this vast rich room. The figure in front of him [his father] signified nothing, nor did the figures about him have any meaning. The only reason for their existence was his lofty consideration.” This is, it’s true, one way of interacting with other people. It doesn’t make for a great life, but it makes for even worse fiction, since fiction, to exist at all, must presume something really does matter about another person’s existence. A book exists because another person’s eye, another’s person language, another person’s way of being in the world is important; because they see something, or because they are interested in other things—people, trees, viruses, politics, wine, little dogs.

Of course, fiction can investigate and portray deep alienation as well as anything else. Loneliness, powerlessness, alienation, and solipsism all have a place in fiction, because they are parts of being human. But books like The Stranger or Demons are interested in that very kind of fatalism and absurdity as a kind of human experience; in these novels, that somebody doesn’t know why they’ve done something isn’t a way of disavowing authorial responsibility, but rather the books’ central concern. Their characters exist in the fruitful space between “perfect self-knowledge” and “things just happen,” between transparency and void.

Can anything happen to a person quite so suddenly quite so much?

Williams’s cultural revival has coincided, not surprisingly, with the demand that art be relatable, allowing the audience to easily fit themselves in. But to be relatable, art must also be incurious, not really interested in the mechanisms of why people are what they are, the texture of their lives, or the objects around them. To be interested in these things is to generate friction between the reader and the text, or at least to elude easy points of identification. Williams is ultimately a “writer’s writer” in the sense that if you like to write about being a writer—if “being a writer” is an identity for you—then he gives you what you want.

His newfound popularity has also coincided—again, not surprisingly—with the fetishization of the book as an object. This kind of book-fervor is a few years old now, but as the recent backlash to Marie Kondo’s dry suggestion that most people only need thirty books indicates, it’s far from gone. Books now exist as book-objects; they are written by writers, loved by “book lovers,” made into lists, declared important. As objects they can be staged, as purveyors of relatability they can be used. But there’s a pervasive sense that they aren’t really meant to be read, critically evaluated, hated, or loved. Opinions are formed about them in advance; “the conversation” around them progresses in expected lines. Just as Claire’s dress in Nothing but the Night could exist without a body, many books could probably exist as a meticulously produced hardcovers full of blank pages—not because they are bad, but because increasingly, they do not exist to be read in the first place.

Nothing but the Night is a story about a person who views the world as made up of puppets, who, even when he hits one of the puppets and is hit in return, can’t really feel them. What he has in spades is self-pity; the novel is a long whine that begins with “other people don’t really exist” and ends with the unacknowledged demand to be loved. Behind this insistence lies an almost unimaginable amount of anger at the outside world, hatred of others, disgust at physicality; hurt cushioned and denied through the powers of money and alcohol; a passivity that builds into violence. It’s rich material for a novelist to make something out of. Too bad one didn’t.