THE MYSTERY GUEST
SYNOPSIS: Grégoire Bouillier’s 2004 memoir (translated by Lorin Stein in 2006), about the mysterious re-entrance of his departed ex-girlfriend into his life, and the equally mysterious birthday party she invites him to.
CONDITION: A Mariner Books paperback, bought new from Powell’s.
THOUGHTS: Nicholson Baker’s obsessively detailed memoir U and I begins with the author discovering a famous writer’s obituary in a newspaper. This kicks off a giddy, free-associative string of thoughts that eventually leads Baker to his subject (the subtle influence of John Updike on Baker’s own works).
The Mystery Guest kicks off from almost the exact same set of circumstances. Grégoire Bouillier frames his memoir around the discovery in his local Parisian newspaper that Michel Leiris, a famous French surrealist writer, has just died. And things do indeed take a similarly quick turn for the unusual—but in Bouillier’s case, it has less to do with his own caffeinated thoughts than a seemingly fated external event. His ex-girlfriend—the one who’d taken off, years earlier, with hardly a departing word—calls him on the phone.
But not to apologize. On the contrary: she’s going to the artist Sophie Calle’s birthday party, and she’s in charge of bringing a “mystery guest,” someone completely unknown to Calle. Bearing no obvious baggage about their shared past, she asks Bouillier if he will be that guest.
He, of course, agrees.
I’d heard a lot about The Mystery Guest before I picked it up on vacation last year, but looking back, I think I’d latched onto the promises of zaniness and literary cartwheeling a little too much. Bouillier’s thought processes are appealing in their specificity—and he’s more emotionally in tune than someone like Baker is in U and I (probably for obvious reasons, given their respective muses)—but I’d be lying if I said this book felt magical, as it does to others.
The book does have some nice turns in it, particularly involving a mysterious Virginia Woolf quote, as well as the incredibly fancy bottle of wine Bouillier brings to Calle’s party, which she doesn’t even open—it gets deposited, untouched, into her ongoing birthday-present art project. And Bouillier himself is charming and aggressively intelligent in that way that French people tend to be.
But I wasn’t prepared for how much time he spends in isolation, poring over his ex’s every last movement and motivation. The book’s charms became, through no fault of its own, restrictive. So it’s a write-off for now: I’ll have to give it another go in a few years, and see how it stacks up when free of the burden of my big, dumb expectations.
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SYNOPSIS: John Williams’s recently resurrected 1965 novel about the life of a farmer’s son-turned-university-professor in Missouri in the first half of the 20th century.
CONDITION: A beautiful paperback from the New York Review of Books Classics, also new from Powell’s.
THOUGHTS: Speaking of expectations, I don’t think there’s ever been a book that I’ve been as predisposed to love as Stoner. For one, it’s a campus novel, which is my very favourite of sub-genres; for two, it’s part of the illustrious NYRB line; and for three, it’s gotten nothing but rave reviews from literally every person I’ve ever seen talk or write about it. (Both Stoner and The Mystery Guest hold spots in The Millions's hall of fame.)
And, well… you guys are going to hate me for this.
Okay, hold on. Back up. I was actually very taken by the second half of the novel, during Stoner’s long, slow decline into old age. Once his life has quietly imploded, and, more importantly, he’s resigned himself to that fact, the prose is graceful and at ease with its permanent rain-cloud mood. Stoner’s stoicism, his discomfort with social norms—it all makes sense as the world increasingly passes him by. And the scenes where Stoner gives a rival professor and his grad-student disciple an academic disemboweling are delightful, through and through.
But there’s a kind of moral voyeurism at play in the first half of the book—the one where a young Stoner chafes against his pre-determined lot in life—that really irritates me. It takes different forms, but the basic sentiment is this: Stoner grows up in an era where people routinely do things that we call tragic (eg. marry a respectable woman, even if they do not love one another). Sometimes he glumly accepts things; other times he tries to rebel, and gets punished for it. In all cases, we are invited to gawk at how tragic these obviously tragic things are.
I don’t find this kind of thing entertaining, or provocative, or even all that useful. Frankly, it’s a one-note idea, and almost immediately becomes a manipulative one, too. That’s how much of Stoner's first halffelt to me—like one long jerk of the chain.
In particular, during the scenes where Stoner’s wife—formerly timid, currently transformed into a catty society woman—launches her passive-aggressive plot to ruin the bond Stoner has with their daughter, I found myself actively recoiling from the page. (My tolerance for father-daughter relationships being destroyed is probably nil to begin with, but still.) You know there’s no way for him, a working father, to win this kind of argument about which parent is fit to do the raising, but Williams asks you to believe in his hero, time and again, only to then confirm: yep, there was no way for him to have won that.
When its hero is achieving his mid-life crisis (grimly, steadily), Stoner feels like a neverending gauntlet of injustice and cruelty—and in the depths of those moments, I wanted to opt out from the whole thing. I’d already granted Stoner his tragic status by page 10. What more does this book want from me?
The politics are a concern, too. Williams has concocted a conspiracy of hysterical women and crippled colleagues and students trying to keep his humble, plain-spoken, straightwhitemale protagonist down. Left to his own devices, of course, Stoner is a model parent, scholar, and human—it’s all these other people (capitalize the O, if you like) who stifle his potential. Some of this is to be expected for 1965, but I’m surprised no other review I know of has mentioned it. It was an alarming sticking point for me throughout.
And if Williams won’t give Stoner a character flaw, then the reverse, an annunciation of the man’s beliefs and virtues, would have been nice. A lifelong professor of English literature, there’s never any real reason given as to what lit the fire under Stoner’s ass as a student, making him abandon the agriculture program and, eventually, his farmer parents, who were counting on him to revitalize the family property. No mention of how his character and worldview change, either. Stoner has his own deep-seated repression to contend with, of course, but Williams never gives books any more inherent allure than, say, working the dusty fields. This seems like a huge missed opportunity.
The entire internet is against me on this one, I realize that. But trust me: nobody is more disappointed that I didn’t love Stoner than me.