Obligatory spoiler warning: if you are the type that doesn't like to know the details of a documentary, I'd suggest you watch Stone Reader before reading this writeup.
First off, I feel rather guilty writing this review since I have not personally read the book that inspired this movie. Yet the movie Stone Reader itself certainly pulls its weight, and is therefore worthy of mention in its own right. Director Mark Moskowitz brings the viewer along with him on his own brand of literary adventure -- the search for a forgotten novel written by a forgotten man.
In 1972, Dow Mossman's first and only novel The Stones of Summer was published, amidst the smoldering persistence of the latter Vietnam war. Mossman was a student and a writer and, according to some, a genius. How, then, did this novel enter the literary universe with such a bang -- a favorable New York Times review and a fair degree of critical acclaim -- only to sell a mere 7,000 copies before dropping into obscurity?
Moskowitz himself admits that the novel is both dense and challenging. He attempted to read it at the age of 18 but lost interest after the first few pages. 25 years later, he picked up his crumbling paperback copy and found what he had missed the first time.
Stone Reader is filmed in documentary style, though the movie synopsis on the back of the DVD does not make clear that this is the case. When my boyfriend and I first loaded up the film, I thought at first that we'd accidentally selected the Special Features disk. I expected a dramatic narrative-type film glossed with typical Hollywood slickness, but instead I got what looked like a PBS special. This was surprising but not disappointing. I like documentaries as long as they're real: Best in Show and This is Spinal Tap were vaguely unsettling to me simply because I felt like someone was trying to trick me. It took me about an hour to figure out whether Stone Reader was a real story about real people and real books. Once Moskowitz started interviewing people such as the publisher of Catch-22, I was reasonably sure that this film was a legitimate labor of love.
Moskowitz's film is a winding, often humorous trip through the musings and notions of critics, readers, writers, and artists. Throughout the 128 minute length of Stone Reader, we have numerous moments consisting of nothing but scenery: equally idyllic indoor and outdoor frames of life. We see Moskowitz's children, who seem almost preternaturally well-behaved. We see Mark's wife, Carrie -- or to be more specific, her hands and feet. Apparently camera-shy, these are the only parts of her she was willing to show on film. The Moskowitz family has a huge house and a beautiful yard with a pond: it is a family's dream home, graced here and there with the individual touches and eccentricities that prove that thought and time were invested in this house. Moskowitz keeps his impressive book collection shelved according to the author's national origin: Russians on the top shelf, followed by French, British, and American authors all the way down to the bottom. The outdoor scenes are dreamy and sunlit, either the high white-yellow of midday or the saturating orange of sunset. Moskowitz obviously loves capturing moments and light, whether in a facial expression or a tumbling leaf.
Moskowitz is driven to find the elusive Mr. Mossman with a fervor that seems frightening at times. He walks the fine line between Sherlock Holmes and stalker as he crosses names and places of his ever-growing list of leads. Why, he wonders, did Mossman only ever publish a single epic novel? Did he die? Did he go insane?
During the first half of the film, the biggest question on my mind was: what was The Stones of Summer about? The novel is nearly 600 pages -- what story did Mossman, who grew up in Iowa, have that required so many words?
William C. Murray (no relation to Bill Murray the actor), a former professor and literary advisor to Dow Mossman, sums it up best. To paraphrase his words in the film, Mossman put too much of himself into his first novel. Mossman's protagonist, Dawes Williams, is merely an avatar for Mossman himself. From idealistic, articulate youth to a man consumed by internal and external tumult, Dawes is Mossman. Downloading one's personality onto the printed page can work for better or for worse, and in Mossman's case it worked in two directions. A picky teacher, a handful of learned critics, and an obsessive bookworm director adored his book. However, Mossman was a writer first and foremost rather than an author. Murray discusses how Mossman had no concept of editing a novel, of channeling raw energy into something commercially viable. He could not fathom the concept of literary agents. He drew from the wellspring of his own soul to produce a long, searing work before he was even thirty years old, and it drained him. The 70 year old Murray we see in Stone Reader recollects driving a young and distraught Mossman to a psychiatric ward soon after his novel was published.
When we finally meet Mossman, it is apparent that he is a man who has seen too much for one lifetime already. The process of writing his first and only book burned him out like a shred of magnesium. I like him instantly: he has young eyes in a body rounded by the years, and his speech is witty and poetic. He talks like one would write if engaged in a stream of consciousness inspiration. We hear about his mother, who brought home stacks of books for him to read as a child. Dow tells various down-to-earth anecdotes about Iowa snowstorms. He displays an impressive knowledge of Shakespeare that makes me wonder for a moment if he's slightly autistic. He's an introvert who likes to talk: this is something I can certainly identify with, being one who enjoys company but lacks the social finesse to seek and attract it on a regular basis. Moskowitz is given a tour of Mossman's home, the home he spent his boyhood in, left, and finally returned to in order to look after his ailing parents and eventually inherit the property. Mossman explains that after finishing The Stones of Summer, he suffered an anxiety attack that lasted 10 years. In order to slow the manic wheels in his head, he took a job welding -- this was his life's work for 19 years. Mossman has not written a novel since, but he has kept numerous journals and written poems, none of which have been published to my knowledge.
After watching this film, realizing that The Stones of Summer is a real book, and skimming the reviews at Amazon, I'm not entirely sure I'd want to read The Stones of Summer. Some snippets of prose from the book show it to be extremely overwrought and heavy-handed, bordering on pretentious. This is not a bad thing in a short story: Harlan Ellison is one of my favorite authors, and one of his hallmarks as a writer is a tendency to shower everything from the mundane to the grotesque in a cascade of adjectives. The novel as a medium is less forgiving to the self-indulgent author -- if you lose the reader in description, you risk letting the story drown. One could say this is a technique of sorts, but it is not a technique everyone appreciates. The Amazon reviews were a mixed bag -- people seemed to love or hate The Stones of Summer. There is also a curious conspiracy-theorist feel to some of the review blurbs, in which the reviewer accuses publishing houses of "planting" favorable reviews of what is, in fact, a boring and mysogynistic piece of masturbatory wordplay.
The film Stone Reader apparently sparked something of a cult around The Stones of Summer, prompting Barnes and Noble to re-release the book in print. Many people bought the book after seeing the film, and according to the reviews, most were disappointed. Either the book is simply too challenging for this generation raised on cartoons and simplistic, linear plotlines, or it appeals to a rare and unusual taste.
The bottom line is that it does not matter whether The Stones of Summer is a good book or a bad book, or whether I decide to read it or not. Stone Reader made me think. It made me want to read, and it made me want to write. It taught me a bit about the mindset one needs to follow a novel through to completion, and the emotional havoc it can wreack on authors. This was an educational and inspiring film, and if Mossman's book accomplished anything, it helped provide a window into the craft of writing.
References: Personal impressions after watching Stone Reader. I read no external reviews of the film before writing my own, however Amazon.com's customer reviews of The Stones of Summer offered some intriguing insight.