Robert Stone Stone, Robert (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Stone 1937?–

American novelist and screenwriter.

A decidedly pessimistic view of modern society dominates Stone's fiction. His characters desperately struggle in a brutal world where those with humanitarian tendencies perish. Stone combines his spare prose style with strong symbolism to reinforce his fiction of absolutes.

Although Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, received much critical praise and his second work, Dog Soldiers, was given the National Book Award in 1975, critics are divided on A Flag for Sunrise. A Conradian examination of corruption in contemporary society, the novel is given high marks as an adventure story but fails to convince on its moral level.

(See also CLC, Vol. 5 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A] first novel about which I am most enthusiastic is Robert Stone's A Hall of Mirrors, which would be notable in any season and whether it was the author's first or his tenth….

Stone has written about a number of persons who are badly adjusted to the society in which they find themselves. (p. 24)

[He] writes out of strong feeling, and his style communicates his passion. As I have often remarked, our most talented novelists are likely to be concerned with misfits. Few of them have made misfits more understandable or more significant than these characters of Stone's…. A Hall of Mirrors is exciting in a way that even promising first novels rarely are. (p. 25)

Granville Hicks, "Nine Bright Beginnings," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. L, No. 33, August 19, 1967, pp. 23-5.∗

Ivan Gold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is almost impertinent to say that the 30-year-old author of this first novel has talent, and it is impertinent to try and relate his gifts to his age or publishing history. Stone, at this moment, is a remarkable writer.

"A Hall of Mirrors" is, one could say, "The Day of the Locust" as told to Malcolm Lowry and edited by Frantz Fanon, the shade of the young Dos Passos benignly gazing on the while. And with such namedropping I mean less to imply influences—which in any case are of interest chiefly to academics and biographers—than to indicate what league Stone is playing in. His voice and his world are his own. Lowry comes to mind because "A Hall of Mirrors" has the most compelling surface, the densest network of detail, of any book I have read since "Under the Volcano," and it probes the soul of an alcoholic to an almost equal depth. The wild finale of Nathanael West's most ambitious book is, if anything, outstripped by Stone's closing 130 pages, both in madness and plausibility, and the sense of doom impending is near to what we get from Fanon. And the Dos Passos of "U.S.A.," however quaint the years and his somersaulting politics may seem to have made him, could move a story in a way few have matched since.

This novel, too, is about America. The characters through whom we must finally recognize each other, and ourselves, seem for a while to make less ambitious claims, but long before the horrid and accurate ending, we know that we have been witnesses to and participants in our own...

(The entire section is 634 words.)

Emile Capouya

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The extraordinary richness of [A Hall of Mirrors] lies not so much in the plot as in the wonderfully drawn secondary characters, all on the margin of society and mostly on the outer edge of sanity. This gallery of grotesques does not strike the reader as being made up of arbitrary creations of a bookish imagination. They are social and psychological types that tell us a great deal about the real world of America. The crowning achievement is the character of Geraldine, ignorant, not pretty, and not smart, but so decent and womanly that the reader is powerfully drawn to her. Something very unusual is going on in this novel: the author's own encounter with life.

The unspoken theme of A Hall of Mirrors is the relation between the prosperous official society and its necessary underworld of drop-outs and cast-offs. These parallel systems meet in the persons of two characters. One is the millionaire demagogue, who wants to get more power than he already has by exploiting the fears of the poor white trash. The other is Rheinhardt, the pattern of the available "intellectual," the disabused journeyman liar of the communications industries.

On the whole, the most talented writers to have dealt with some aspect of this latest American phase—drugs, disaffection, inversion, advertising as politics—have not known what to make of it, artistically speaking. From Norman Mailer to John Rechy, striking as their...

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Prairie Schooner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the jacket of Robert Stone's Hall of Mirrors, Wallace Stegner says that Stone "writes like a bird, like an angel"—which is not at all true; what is true is that Stone writes very well, that he creates a group of characters that are credible and some caricatures that are interesting, and that he places them in an action that is appropriate to their abilities and significant to our society. In doing all this, Stone has accomplished a great deal. The story Stone tells is comparatively simple: an alcoholic disc-jockey, an idealistic but not very intelligent social worker, and an illiterate young Southern girl are used as tools by a power hungry super-patriot to help stage a demonstration that gets out of hand. The story and its telling have something of the exaggeration of black humor, but Stone manages to get the best effects of such humor without the overwrought effect. The result may not be the best novel of the year, but it is a novel well worth reading, and it makes Stone's next book one to wait for hopefully.

"Review: 'Hall of Mirrors'," in Prairie Schooner (reprinted from Prairie Schooner by permission of University of Nebraska Press; © 1968 by University of Nebraska Press), Vol. XLII, No. 3, Fall, 1968, p. 280.

L. Hugh Moore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Hall of Mirrors] provides a profound and disquieting vision of contemporary American society and possible responses to that society. A measure of the artistic success of the novel is the fact that Stone's themes inhere in every aspect of the novel. Recurring images and metaphors, for example, develop the main themes and provide a convenient way to examine and classify the chief characters.

Many writers, Hawthorne and Camus among others, have warned of the dangers of detachment, the sin of isolation, of how it atrophies one's heart and destroys one's humanity. Stone, however, goes beyond this theme by undercutting the alternative. Detachment, or coolness, in his world, is the only way to survive. Involvement inevitably brings madness and a futile, usually violent, death. The moral values are the same as those of the earlier writers, so that the theme becomes the immorality of survival, the wickedness of adaptation. By images, metaphors, and direct references Stone connects his setting, modern New Orleans, a heightened vision of America, with the bloody, brutal, cold undersea world and his characters with the denizens of this icy environment. Further, he uses the metaphor of evolution to develop the comparison. Since the world is getting colder, the survivors are those who can withstand the moral chill and prey upon the less hardy creatures, those who maintain, anachronistically and non-adaptatively, the old values of pity, concern, mercy, responsibility, and love. (pp. 43-4)

The structure of A Hall of Mirrors offers four choices to the characters: adapt and survive, withdraw and observe, despair and die, or...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Squalid, spectacular, agitated, littered with ancient ruins and riddled with more spies than you can shake a cloak at, Central America seems almost too much of a good thing for a novelist: the treasure of the Sierra Madre tarted up for an apocalypse. Robert Stone, setting his new, now novel in an imaginary but circumstantial version of this place, is taking a serious risk; but the risk is worth it, and the wager is won. We are "south of cliché" here, as a character in the book says. Stone converts clichés into people, and people into questions. "A Flag for Sunrise" has the pace and suspense of a first-class thriller, and it catches the shifting currents of contemporary Latin American politics.


(The entire section is 1175 words.)

Leonard Michaels

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Flag for Sunrise is about Catholics—a nun, a priest, an anthropologist, a drifter—caught up among spies, gun runners, murderers, maniacs, and revolutionaries in a poor Central American country ruled by American business interests and the CIA through a local military regime. The plot is complicated and built upon short scenes, some of them so intensely dramatic they could be published independently. What holds them together is suspenseful action, an atmosphere of neurasthenic menace, and Stone's prose style. Lean, tough, quick, and smart, it is perfect for violent action, yet lyrical enough for Stone's nun as she contemplates her own mind, her "inward place."…

The plot has largely to do...

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Geoffrey Stokes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stone's characters wear their emblematic responsibilities so naturally that A Flag for Sunrise works as an adventure yarn, but on the level at which it aspires to greatness, the book is about the process by which ideas—theologies, ideologies—flesh themselves out and become institutions, and about how they are damaged in transit. This layering should come as no surprise to readers familiar with Stone's stunning Dog Soldiers …; what is unexpected, however, is the anachronous gap between the new book's layers. The adventure story is the stuff of tomorrow's network news, but the philosophical concerns are embedded in a rhetoric—and in a view of the world—utterly foreign to the book's spy-versus-spy...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Stone's [A Flag for Sunrise] is sweeping and ambitious. It deals with major political and social themes; it is set in a small, backward, near-mythic Central American country; it has a large, diverse cast of characters whose fates draw them inexorably to the same place at the same moment; it invites comparison, according to promotional material, with For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Naked and the Dead.

Since both those novels are vastly overrated, the comparison is apt. Notwithstanding all the baggage it carries, A Flag for Sunrise has little to recommend it. Stone writes very well, he creates plausible characters, and he has a deft hand for dramatic incident. But he...

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A. Alvarez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Stone has published only three novels in 14 years, but they have established him as one of the most interesting and gifted novelists in America. He is also slightly out of the run of current American fiction by seeming not to share his colleagues' fascination with their own egos.

Even in his first book, 'A Hall of Mirrors,' which was intermittently brilliant but hectic and florid, as though its anguish and distaste were more than he was yet equipped to handle, he seemed above all concerned with the traditional business of fiction: narrative, character and drama which develop their own energy and create their own rules regardless of the author's personal foibles. He makes himself felt not as a...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Richard Poirier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Almost] any human movement in Stone's novels becomes, whether this is intended or not, a metaphor for intrusion or intervention, and of the suffering that follows from it. Drugs or alcohol are in that sense also intrusive, a self-inflicted assault on the mind. (p. 37)

A Flag for Sunrise offers anything that can send a body up or down—acid for the hippies, dexies for Pablo, and, for the older folk, lots and lots of booze and grass.

Everyone is tripping out in any way possible, and the different plots are correspondingly fast-paced and phantasmagorically inventive. People only halfway through a joint or a glass of Flor de Cana are transported into a maelstrom of violence,...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Thomas Sutcliffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1841 Carlyle opened his series of lectures On Heroes and Hero Worship by speaking of the "common languid times, with their unbelief, distress, perplexity, with their languid doubting characters and embarrassed circumstances, impotently crumbling-down into ever worse distress toward final ruin". Robert Stone's novels have no heroes, but they are about similar times; he has earned himself a reputation, in America particularly, as a beat-generation Carlyle, a cultural conscience working through fiction. In his earlier novels A Hall of Mirrors and Dog Soldiers he pressed insistently on the bruises of America's mercenary and naïve politics and the corrupting inheritance of Vietnam, and his work was...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, made into a successful film, dealt with what his publishers termed 'post Vietnam trauma'; and although A Flag for Sunrise is largely set in a fictitious Central American state, called Tecan, it also does so—albeit obliquely….

When critics have written of this novelist, they have tended to evoke Graham Greene and Conrad. Like Greene, Stone is an exponent of the thriller as parable; but, unlike Greene, he fails to ensure that his thrillers still have the solidity of granite when all their political and philosophical accretions have been stripped from them…. The comparison with Conrad also veers away from the mark. Admittedly both novelists are concerned...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

David Bosworth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Flag for Sunrise is too long and badly paced. In part, this arises from the understandable difficulties of inventing and populating a foreign land. Less excusable, however, is the constant intrusion of the author's "ideas," which bloat the narrative and slow the book's pace. There are too many "flags" here, too many gaudy symbols and concepts run up the pole, trumpets blaring, by an author hell-bent on being taken seriously. In particular, the bogus, boozy philosophizing that was the one real weakness of Dog Soldiers runs rampant in Tecan. Everyone from priest to spy, from anthropologist to hired heavy, has his self-conscious and long-winded say about the state of the world and human nature, ending too...

(The entire section is 525 words.)