Gardner, John (Vol. 8)
Gardner, John 1933–
American novelist, short story writer, and critic, Gardner, an Old and Middle English scholar, is a superb storyteller, intertwining modern-day realism with medieval fantasies. Frank McConnell credits Gardner with creating the genre of "protest fantasy" in The Wreckage of Agathon. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
[In John Gardner's novels and stories] there is an element of the arbitrary, of the willed, that too often interrupts the natural momentum of his material and produces an odd dryness in those very places where the flow of feeling should be most spontaneous and life-giving. Gardner's work gives the impression of having proceeded from a too well-stocked mind, a mind that cannot resist the temptations arising from its own cultivation, that must bring to bear the whole weight of Greek mythology, Western philosophy from Plato to the present, medieval allegory, English literature and Protestant theology upon the quotidian lives of farmers, police chiefs and piano teachers.
"October Light" is a lavishly talented, often impressive work, clearly his best book since "Grendel." It does not however, finally allay my suspicion that Gardner's powers are more histrionic or mimetic than instinctively novelistic. The book is really composed of two novels—one serious, one "trashy"—that coexist in uneasy counterpoint. The main novel, the "true" novel, takes place in granitic Vermont, around Bennington. It concerns the desperate struggle between an octogenarian widow, Sally Page Abbott, and her brother, James L. Page, a hard-bitten, cantankerous and violent old farmer…. (p. 1)
In attempting to do full justice to the story and its main characters, I am aware of having to contend with a mild prejudice induced by a surfeit of crusty, strong-minded New Englanders who either struggle to wrest a living from rocky soil or else lead "old-American" lives in picture-book villages. The setting of "October Light" is Ethan Allen country, heavy with the lore of two hundred years; in another aspect, it is the country of Norman Rockwell, who is several times mentioned in the book. Its inhabitants live not very far west of "Our Town" and not very far north—as one is reminded by the unyieldingness of the central struggle—from the landscape of "Desire Under the Elms" and "Ethan Frome." Still, Gardner must be granted at least squatter's rights to his new territory. More important, he has been remarkably successful in animating his two archetypal Yankees and in dramatizing their conflict, which reaches into the depths of what might be called, loosely, the Protestant soul.
The novel is no mere psychomachy, with the Puritan virtues (resourcefulness, optimism, a hunger for improvement) on one side and the vices (a nearly mindless dedication to hard work, an incapacity to express any deep feelings except anger, suspiciousness, xenophobia) on the other. Sally's ruthlessness can be startling…. And James, for all his orneriness, is fully and deeply humanized…. James stands before us as a figure of almost tragic dimensions—pitiable, moving and perversely admirable.
The lesser characters, too, are carefully rounded, lovingly observed. (pp. 1, 16)
Another prejudice of mine is aroused by the fact that "October Light" is heavily theme-ridden. What I am willing (with some inconsistency) to accept in the stories of Hawthorne or in "Moby Dick," I tend to deplore in contemporary American fiction. Symbolic meanings, obvious and occult, abound in Gardner's novel, ready to be gathered like mushrooms from the forest floor….
The variations on locking are endless, ranging from the literal locking of Sally's door to the fact that James has been locked in icy remorse since the death of his son and is "unlocked"—able to thaw into tears—near the end. Much of the lavish and often beautiful natural description, and most of the historical references and quotations from the Founding Fathers ("October Light" is very consciously a Bicentennial book) present themselves for symbol-plucking. This indulgence in thematic cross-referencing impeded my enjoyment of the novel; other readers may find it enriching. In any case, its occurrence within the main story does no great harm to the book, whose characters and central situation are strong enough to generate a significance of their own that glows through all the symbolic encrustation.
The inclusion of the sub-novel is another matter. A third or more of "October Light" is consumed by the mangled text of the paperback, "The Smugglers of Lost Souls' Rock."… I suppose Gardner included this boring and exasperating farrago as a counterweight to the old-American, narrow Yankee world of the true novel, as a surrealistic projection of the crazed new world of America. All sorts of thematic connections between the two can be discovered, if one is so inclined. Perhaps he included it as self-parody, an elaborate joke…. Whatever the case, the sub-novel badly gets in the way of the main story and seriously wounds the novel as a whole. If Gardner were a first novelist, I suspect his editor would have insisted that the sub-novel be excised, or at least reduced to a harmless paragraph or two.
The wound is serious but, happily, far from fatal. Whatever its excesses and miscalculations, "October Light" remains a powerful and often admirable performance…. (p. 16)
Robert Towers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 26, 1976.
The more of John Gardner I read, the more he seems to me a kind of Evel Knievel at the typewriter, confronting in his novels the enigma of a universe that won't explain itself, hurtling himself through that narrative space, but acting on faith that he will, at the end, land upright and affirmatively on the solid terrain of significance. But a significance not merely "personal." He simultaneously thwarts our engagement and gets us to love the monsters and the near monsters, the graceless and grotesques who people his random accidental worlds.
The struggle for meaning, often in the face of demonic absurdity, is what is in store for most of Gardner's protagonists. How is one to make sense of a suicide or murder, as in The Sunlight Dialogues (1972) or Grendel (1971)? How is one to make sense of a terminal illness? In Resurrection (1966), Gardner's first novel, the solution is traditionally Christian. A young philosophy professor, James Chandler, learns he is dying. In his final weeks, he befriends—almost accidentally—a young neurotic woman named Viola. He dies, the sacrifical lamb, and she is left "beautifully changed," redeemed. Chandler, of course, does not take such a Christlike view of himself, but he, too, comes to his own peace. "It was not the beauty of the world one must affirm, but the world, the buzzing, blooming confusion itself." Gardner's brilliance is that in the telling, the tale does not sound like an article in Reader's Digest; whatever affirmation we come to is dignified and difficult, not sentimental.
In later novels, particularly Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues, Gardner has more to say about the nature and sources of meaning. Like the mystics, he asserts not that the universe is meaningless but that what most of us construe as "reality" is too limited and therefore useless and false….
One possible corrective to our limited vision, suggests Gardner, is the monster-hero, the outlaw or social outcast who, by choosing to live beyond the social system we take for "real," bears witness to our lack of metaphysical comprehensiveness. As one character in Grendel says, "Except in the life of a hero, the whole world's meaningless. The hero sees values beyond what's possible. That's the nature of a hero. It kills him, of course, ultimately. But it makes the whole struggle of humanity worthwhile."…
In Grendel, the verse of the Shaper—a kind of court poet—is beautiful, but an illusion. "He knows no more than they do about total reality," says the dragon. "But he spins it all together with harp runs and hoots, and they think what they think is alive, think Heaven loves them." And this may be why Gardner deliberately creates gothic worlds which are not beautiful, and why he deliberately uses the novel to remind us it's only a novel….
Within October Light is another novel—150 pages of The Smugglers of Lost Souls' Rock, Gardner's "trashy" and yet serious spoof of the blockbuster adventure novel (set in and around California)…. (p. 70)
The effect of interspersing the two novels is to keep us continually aware that each is an artifact and not a world we can settle into (and, lest we forget, the characters in both novels are forever comparing themselves to characters in novels). But, even more significantly, the juxtapositioning of the two stories allows us to see beneath the accidental circumstances of each set of lives to the essential connectedness of both.
In addition, each novel serves as a foil to or gloss on the other, and so Gardner is free to have his characters do less explaining and analyzing than they have in the past, though ironically, the "trashy" novel is far more self-conscious, and contains more intentionally coy literary and philosophical allusions than October Light. In this way, and in its deliberate attention to form and formula, Smugglers is more like Gardner's earlier novels than October Light is, and perhaps it is Gardner's private joke on himself to insist repeatedly on Smugglers's trashiness.
What the counterpoint finally reveals is that in Vermont [the setting of October Light] as in California (at times Gardner's mock symbol of decay and dissipation) lives are violent, suicidal, lawless, but also loving, affirmative, collaborative—perhaps more so (in both extremes) in decadent California than in contained Vermont….
Gardner this time around suggests that meaning is apprehended through feeling, that the present moment acquires its legitimate resonance through the reflections of a sensibility that is willing to know and accept its own history, and willing to welcome its own future—loves, hatreds, victories, failures….
His concerns still are those of the philosopher and theologian, but in this novel he has found a way out of the explicit didacticism that occasionally made his novels read like Plato's Republic, and a way into that is not an announcement but an enactment of what in this life continues to move him. (pp. 70-1)
Elizabeth Stone, "John Gardner Writes Two Novels for the Price of One," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), December 27, 1976, pp. 70-1.
Whatever else may be said about [October Light,] John Gardner's rich and fragrant Indian pudding of a novel (soaked in apple jack and stuffed with juicy raisins), it ought to be said first that it does tell a good and rather old-fashioned story—rollicking, ribald, truly imaginative the way Dickens, for example, is imaginative, and real….
Philosophically—and Gardner's readers know there is always a philosophically in the fictional underbrush—October Light is a hopeful novel, as if the author believes that life in America will continue beyond the bicentennial year and not be cut off by an angry God, the Symbionese Liberation Army, or terminal despair, any one of which may threaten and even claim a victim or two from time to time….
"It's as if God put me on earth to write," [Gardner] remarked a few years ago, and there is indeed a deep theological cast to his fiction, which deals essentially with the question of how a man should live his life caught "in the trench warfare between freedom and order," as the critic and fellow Vermonter Geoffrey Wolff once wrote.
John Gardner is one of the eight or ten "major" novelists of these times, and October Light is a rich example of his art. (p. G1)
William McPherson, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 2, 1977.
[John Gardner] wants to suggest that many clichés are true, which I suppose no one doubts. The question is how useful their truth is, and the difficulty is how to make them seem true in a book.
We are told of a character in October Light that he is "not so naïve as to doubt that the trashiest fiction is all true, as the noblest is all illusion." But the only serious way for a writer to act on this notion, I suspect, would be to write trashy fiction unrepentantly, and Gardner can't bring himself to do this. It is also very hard to write trashy fiction when you don't believe in your own trash. What Gardner has written (in collaboration with his wife, he informs us) is a playful philosophical take-off of trashy fiction, which is about as lighthearted as the Declaration of Independence, and which an old lady in his novel finds and reads, with us peeping over her shoulder….
The fact that [Gardner's] people are clearly parodying themselves doesn't really help, it merely freezes them in their limbo between coyness and pretension. The same goes for the clumsiness of the device of having this story found and read in the novel. It is an intended clumsiness, no doubt, but what is it intended to do? When the old lady reading the story thinks of its "impishness" and the "delicate way" it works, we can't really smile at the old lady's literary taste, because if the story isn't impish and delicate (and it isn't), it certainly isn't anything else. (p. 59)
October Light is a bicentennial tour of old Vermont, all brisk weather and cold light and Yankee orneriness, the account of a feud between two old people, brother and sister, neatly illuminated by quotations from Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, John Adams, and their contemporaries. This is a novel in which people say, "By thunder," "By tunkit," and "Heavens to Betsy," and are described as being "meaner than pussley broth" and "crazy as a loon." However it is not a novel which places any faith in this vocabulary, and when it wants to say something it reaches for another one: "and the image before him he would have called, if he'd known the word, symbolic." There must be dozens of Vermont farmers who are more at home with the word "symbolic" than they are with pussley broth.
October Light is also full of artful symmetries and juxtapositions and prophecies….
[Gardner offers] up allegories by the handful and just [lets] them drop: the brother and sister are England and America, America and the Third World, men and women, whites and blacks. When a character protests against this projection of a private wrangle on to history by saying, "Oh Sally dear, what's the country got to do with it," Sally, the sister, smartly replies, "The country's got everything to do with it. It's the haves and the have-nots, that's what it is." Again, as with the impishness and delicacy of the inserted story, we are no doubt meant to feel Sally's got something wrong here. But what is it she has got wrong?
Her perspective is backed up by the whole novel, the whole heavy investigation of the divided American character, angry nostalgia on the one hand and sloppy liberalism on the other. Certainly these factions do exist in America now, and do loom large; the cliché is true to this extent. But it is not a cliché that Gardner can properly animate in his novel, and it seems to me too crude anyway, too flat and too big to do anything except squash the discussion it is supposed to start. Can we really take another long debate about whether television scatters the mind and whether workmanship is what it used to be?
And yet October Light doesn't altogether fail. There are all kinds of rooms in the house of fiction, and missing the truth of trash and the truth of good novels, Gardner still manages to get across what I'll call the truth of allusion. I can't believe in Gardner's cut-out characters as they stand, but I don't feel they're simply fakes. Sally says of the tale she's reading that "it came close enough to life to remind her of it," and I would say much the same about October Light. Gardner understands the loneliness of stubborn people, and the violence that apparently simple and stable lives may contain…. [What] has crept into October Light from the real world is Gardner's loyalty to people and lives he can't quite catch in fiction, and to the apparently dying, old-fashioned form he can't believe in and can't let go. (p. 60)
Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), January 20, 1977.
In October Light a Bennington coed asks her dance partner if he has read anything by John Updike, Gardner's nod of recognition to a fellow practitioner of spirit-flected realism. With Bellow, Gardner and Updike have resisted both language games and the apocalypse of fact by continuing with narrative leavened by the possibility, at least, of transcendence. In October Light and Marry Me, they write of men "born in an age of spirits" (Gardner's phrase) but living with few visible reminders of this past, anachronistic men in consciously anachronistic novels. Gardner and Updike are skillful and necessary resisters. I wish they had written better books.
Like Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, October Light is about the "unlocking" of an old man with hard opinions and little charity….
Gardner's materials are the familiar ones of family chronicles—marital problems, parental failures, the twining of guilt and love—but with an interesting perspective of place, a Vermont small town where memory is long but the growing season is short. This perspective and its attendant language, the not quite Rockwellian minor characters, and the unlocking of James Page's armored self in his late October would have sufficed very nicely. But Gardner is defensive about this kind of fiction, and it is this defensiveness that spoils the book. (p. 89)
[A] beat-up paperback entitled The Smugglers of Lost Souls' Rock, [a] Pynchonized Dog Soldiers with a sci-fi ending,… kills much of [Sally's] time and about a third of Gardner's novel. Sally believes Smugglers is "trash," yet it begins to influence the way she thinks about her brother and the past. Gardner's point here and elsewhere in the novel is that literature (along with other media) does affect behavior and, implicitly, that the novelist has a responsibility to tell an ennobling truth.
Even if this is true, the novel within October Light is a ham-handed way of demonstrating it. And perhaps inconsistent too, since Smugglers is hardly affirmative. Too long to work as parody, [it is] too meager to be taken seriously…. In his attempt to defend the out-of-fashion fiction that is the strength of October Light, Gardner ends up writing a contemporary cliché. (pp. 89-90)
Thomas LeClair, in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 4, 1977.
John Gardner is a genuinely eclectic novelist whose books consistently display an impressive range despite their determined articulation of a repeated constitutive theme. (p. 520)
One may say the message is existential. The voyage traveled by Gardner's heroes and villains constitutes man's search for meaning and permanence in a universe which asserts their irrelevance and ignores him. Successive books examine the idea of ultimate absurdity from the viewpoints of wildly differing individual seekers; their creator appears to be examining the consequences, in a variety of social and historical contexts, of the lessons they learn. Some of Gardner's people (and nonhumans as well) are destroyed by what they come to know; others persevere in spite of it. Their author's own opinion must be inferred. My guess is that he is obsessively interested in the tension between social order and individual freedom, that he has decided that civil utopias are unmanageable, and that he therefore poses for his readers situations which ask them whether the alternative of isolated personal freedom may be substituted for these as a desirable goal….
Characters, structural devices, and thematic preoccupations from biblical, classical, and medieval poetry and drama prominently figure in [Gardner's] fiction (within that blanket term I include Gardner's sassily hubristic version of the classical epic, his Jason and Medeia). (p. 521)
The employment of conventional forms imbues Gardner's chronicles of thwarted aspiration with a contrary groundswell of optimistic idealism. His stories assert that even plain and timid men are heroes who are forced to embark on quests during which they encounter symbolic personified forces that test their endurance and ingenuity. I read his books as attempts to reconcile values implicit in traditional literatures with the psychological uncertainty bequeathed to us by a universe that now looks nonrational. Religious faith removed, there is no longer reason for contemporary knights-errant to feel assured that the monsters they slay are their enemies, or that the goals they pursue are unambiguously good.
Some sources for these confusions and tensions may be glimpsed here and there in Gardner's scholarly essays. He has written … on Chaucer, on the mystery and miracle plays (viewing the Wakefield cycle, for example, as a coherent single work, not a hodgepodge of unrelated plays), on numerous Old English poems—riddles, runes, Beowulf (of special interest, since Gardner has produced his own Grendel). He has "modernized" The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Owl and the Nightingale, and five other Middle English poems. Most interesting of all is his translation of The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet, graced by a long introduction which speculates incisively on the ironic deployment of medieval themes in that baffingly faceted gem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Gardner emphasizes the sorely tried Gawain's "failure to be perfect," as well as the gap between his buoyant idealism "and the nature of this fallen, traitor- and monster-ridden world." In the afterglow of irony, the grandiose architecture of feudalism looms up as only one among many alternatives to anarchy; chivalry and courtly love seem nothing more than gorgeously brocaded arrangements which foolishly presume to imitate some overarching divine order. (pp. 521-22)
The medieval poets' assertion of man's imperfect nature is the clear precursor of medievalist Gardner's fictional patterns. All his stories concern themselves with initiatory journeys toward knowledge. Each journey resolves itself into a humbling acceptance of man's limitations. All the more reason why we may wonder at the puzzling alternation, throughout his books, between crushing pessimism and optimistic stick-to-itiveness. His books read in sequence do not seem to move in a discernible direction or reveal a design. This is explainable: Gardner's novels have not been published in the order in which they were written…. Both [The Sunlight Dialogues and Nickel Mountain] show unmistakable signs of apprentice work as well as numerous incidental resemblances to the first of his novels to be published, The Resurrection. And I find reason to surmise that Gardner's new novel, October Light, may have originated in conception some years ago and been only recently revised. The best way to argue such speculations is to examine Gardner's fictions in the order in which I believe he wrote them.
In The Resurrection (1966) the elements of all its successors inhere, though the novel itself is an abstract young writer's production: it is forced and clumsily erudite. Its protagonist, James Chandler, is a professor of philosophy who has discovered he will soon die of leukemia. (pp. 522-23)
The Resurrection is overloaded with philosophical allusions, but they yield—as Chandler's "education" progresses—to a parade of sharp surprising images…. Reason cannot account to the philosophical man for the mysteries that surround him. The gain in visionary power lets him understand how others, who grieve for him, struggle to smooth his passage toward death. Still there is no suggestion that life's alarming turbulence has been contained or mastered….
Nickel Mountain … is another fable of aheroic regeneration. (p. 523)
Gardner surrounds [Henry, his protagonist,] with garish and lively personalities, events, and portents. An unusually hot summer is "a sure sign of witchcraft at work, or miracles brooding." "Jesus" and "the devil" are so frequently evoked (by expletives) that it would be ingenuous not to recognize the simplistic contours of pastoral morality play. Right and wrong, optimism and pessimism struggle for the soul of Henry Soames. The novel moves so well that it disguises its sentimental overstatements: the growth of complex awareness in its hero's modest mind seems a natural process, emanating, sensibly enough, from his refusal to accept despair.
There is a pleasing richness in these novels, though neither The Resurrection nor Nickel Mountain completely overcomes its overdependence on eccentric situations and characters (virtuosity displayed for its own sake, perhaps) and on a rigid thematic framework in which a single central figure undergoes a series of trials to earn new knowledge and to emerge from the experience a better man. The Sunlight Dialogues, a major step beyond these fictions, is a work of rare ironic complexity and is one of the most ambitious American novels of recent years. For once Gardner has written an ambitious novel whose crosshatched plots and intersecting characters are pulled together in a relationship dictated by the overruling exposition of an encompassing central theme: man's need to know that the world he inhabits makes sense and that his own actions matter….
[A] climate of imbalance breeds several confrontations between opposites. In the central conflict Batavia's police chief Fred Clumly is baited by a bearded anarchist who calls himself "the Sunlight Man" and mocks the irrelevancies of Law and Order while lecturing his confused pursuer on metaphysical principles….
This simple opposition rests at the center of a labyrinthine many-leveled plot which confirms Fred Clumly's hunch that "it's all connected. There can't be order otherwise. It's all some kind of Design." (p. 524)
The novel's surface events—all parts of interrelated separate mysteries, each requiring its own solution—absorb so much attention that one can only guess at the patterns intimated by Gardner's profligate use of literary sources…. There are direct allusions, within the narrative proper, to the "recantation" from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, Dante, the Ceres-Proserpina myth, and I dare not guess how many others. A contretemps in front of an outdoor barbecue clearly suggests a journey to the underworld. A sexual temptation scene is observed occurring beneath an apple tree.
Remarkably enough, these troublesome added dimensions never disengage our attention from the ordeal of Fred Clumly, and the two crucial subplots which echo and reinforce it….
Too much happens in The Sunlight Dialogues. Characters are not always clearly delineated, and we keep forgetting things that we have been told about them. But we accept the prolixity and keep reading avidly through it because Gardner keeps returning the focus to Chief Clumly—a plodding, unpretentious representative of an Ideal he feels privileged to serve. (p. 525)
In Gardner's next three books the conflict between social order and individual freedom is experienced not by unheroic average men but by historical or legendary figures that he has wrenched from their original literary contexts and has reimagined into amusingly contentious rebels and ideologues. His protagonists are no longer innocents: they take positions, espouse systems of thought. And very frequently the events that overtake them put their philosophies in doubt.
Like the medieval poets (specifically Chaucer) Gardner finds fresh approaches to the problems which preoccupy his fiction in retelling "olde stories," reshaping formal dialogues and tales of heroic adventuring into wry iconoclastic questionings. Imitative exercises stimulate Gardner's originality: he is at his best when devising ways to make conventional expressions of the old values prove that those values are undependable. It becomes the burden of all his later books to argue that the accepted certainties cannot hold—that man's experience is more menacing than he can know upon plunging into it.
As the intent of his work becomes more assured, then, Gardner loses some of the appealing undirected energy that animates his early novels. In its place there is a clear gain in concentrated irony—when his personae are credible as individuals (not just as states of mind), and when the plots which contain them do not too nakedly reveal the diagrams beneath the outlines of their actions.
The Wreckage of Agathon (1970), set in Sparta in the sixth century B.C., takes the form of a twin monologue spoken alternately by the philosopher and seer Agathon and his wary apprentice Demodokos, nicknamed "Peeker" (i.e., "Seer Jr."). (pp. 525-26)
The flashbacks to Agathon's unrestrained tenure as an Athenian freeman, his (tiresome) tribulations with wife and mistress, prove that Gardner does not have enough material for a novel. But the book works wonderfully as a dialogue. Though it makes explicit correlations (optimism/freedom, pessimism/restraint), it does not permit us the comfortable illusion that Agathon is a humanitarian hero…. (p. 526)
[Agathon] can't accept theories of any kind, for he suspects truth is findable…. Perhaps … the "wreckage" of Agathon is both his unpretentious humanity and his refusal to hope for ultimate knowledge.
The narrator and protagonist of Grendel (1971) informs us bluntly that the universe is absurd. (p. 527)
Grendel is Gardner's best novel—ingenious, concise, crystalline, furiously funny…. By putting his inhuman protagonist through a recognizably human succession of intellectual crises, Gardner makes Grendel's savage relativism credible, even beguiling. Still we should remember that it is a monster who has convinced himself that "things come and go…. That's the gist of it."
The same theme floods [Jason and Medeia]…. [It] is an epic poem, a retelling in twenty-four "books" of a story pieced together from Euripedes' Medea, the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, and several other sources. It is a tragedy of betrayed faith and deluded idealism, heavily weighted with satirical gibes against the virtues which epics are wont to celebrate…. Vividly etched characters loom before us, only to pronounce variations on the poem's relentless central theme: "the gods' deep scorn of man," the heroes' realization that "all our convictions, all our faith in each other, [are] an illusion." (pp. 527-28)
This darkest of Gardner's fictions is perhaps most interesting for its energetic blending of literary influences. Earthly struggles are paralleled by scenes set in the palaces of the gods. Allegorical personifications parade by…. [The] downward momentum is irreversible; the gods remain blandly nihilistic, and the game must play itself out.
The rhetorical splendor of Jason and Medeia is dulled by dozens of flat or wordy passages, but the boldness of its conception alone should keep the book alive, to be fairly judged by later generations. I doubt that any other contemporary writer will attempt such a work in our lifetime. At the very least this truly herculean effort is an admirable companion to the novels it joins in its stark suggestion that men's ambitions are nonsensical games. But again there is the problem centered in the narrator: why should we believe him capable of telling us the entire truth?
There are some interesting adjuncts to these chronicles of wreckage and waste, among the children's stories gathered in Dragon, Dragon … (1975) and Gudgekin the Thistle Girl … (1976). Fanciful and clever as they are, the tales remain ironic jokes which assert a breezy relativism…. (p. 528)
His most recent books reveal Gardner's virtues and defects in unruly profusion and in almost equal measure. The King's Indian (1974) includes most of his short stories. They are artful redevelopments of themes and situations borrowed from Poe, Browning, Kafka, Melville, and other writers. Even allusions to Lewis Carroll appear in the three "Tales of Queen Louisa," rambunctious Graustarkian romances which liken the "accidents" of status and rule to the kind of unexplainable sorcery that can make a rosebush bloom in winter or transform a monarch into a toad (and back again).
Several stories ("The Temptation of St. Ivo," "Pastoral Care," "The Warden") mislead their protagonists into anticipating that their traumas will conclude in some kind of sensible comprehension—then reduce them to dejected frustration when meaninglessness asserts itself. (pp. 528-29)
The protagonist of "The King's Indian" has "learned early in life that any man not firmly committed to a single point of view is as apt a philosopher as anybody else."… It teases us with the information that the "King's Indian" is a classic chess move—but also lets the title phrase imply an ideal composite, mingling orderly intelligence with unlettered instinct: the double strength derived from the matched excellences of master and servant. The man who surfaces above these confusions and lives to tell us of them has done so because he accepts knowing there are no paradises, earthly or celestial; that, in spite of such knowledge, "a wise man settles for, say, Ithaca." (p. 529)
[October Light] reads like a close cousin to The Resurrection and Nickel Mountain—which it resembles in its use of a rural setting, broadly drawn characters who embody symbolic oppositions, and dreadfully clumsy ironies (a theological discussion carried on over the interruptions of people passing by to use the bathroom; an argument on race relations shouted through a locked door). I think this is a rewritten version of a novel which has been around Gardner's workroom for several years….
October Light is ambitious and reasonably sprightly but fails to satisfy the expectations it raises. The epigraphs are reverberant quotations from Founding Fathers…. [However] this bicentennial salute implies that America's battle for independence was not rewarded by any dramatic increase of vision. Gardner's personified forces perceive things in "October light"—a phenomenon native to New England late in the year: a sharp autumnal clarity which arranges hitherto blurred objects in unambiguous focus. The point is that it arrives late in the year; that the clarity (if it be such) is relative in the eye of the beholder. (p. 530)
When John Gardner uses his characters as mouthpieces, his readers must feel like sinners who encounter at the gateway to Hell a three-headed dog who doesn't guard against intruders but instead tugs them headlong into the place. The impulse behind his early novels was preferable: to show uncertain protagonists swept up in life's confusion and struggle, surviving their ordeals with an understanding that experience is a mystery not to be too easily understood. Therefore I hope that the unevenness of his recent work reflects an ongoing process of choosing how best to dramatize his characters' assumption of ironic pessimism. It is difficult to believe in the reality of characters who are seemingly born knowing that whatever happens to them will end up being of no consequence. We care more for the ones who live life and learn from it.
There is a real (and I think disturbing) mystery about Gardner's fiction. Are the stories which show his people growing into knowledge newly published work in an early mode that he unwisely has now abandoned? Or is he relaxing his thematic hold on characters, permitting them to be persons as well as ideas and symbols? I choose the latter alternative and will await further stories (like The Sunlight Dialogues, Grendel, "The King's Indian") told, or retold, for the purpose of reminding us that we have no choice but to accept our burden of incompleteness and study the outrageous ambitiousness of stubborn humans through the imperfect human medium: "not the sunlight, but the sunlight entrapped in the cloud"—October light. (p. 531)
Bruce Allen, "Settling for Ithaca: The Fictions of John Gardner," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Summer, 1977, pp. 520-31.