Stillness and Shadows Essay - Critical Essays

Stillness and Shadows

This volume brings together two posthumous works by John Gardner: STILLNESS, a novel completed in 1975, only a portion of which was ever published before, and SHADOWS, a long, unfinished fragment of a book on which the author had been working since 1974. Gardner’s friend and long-time colleague Nicholas Delbanco edited the latter and supplied an introduction for this edition.

The chronicle of the marriage of Martin and Joan Orrick traces their individual and collective search for an identity; his through booze, sex, and, above all, writing; hers, by accepting pain, the past, and her husband. Gardner traces the families of the protagonists and follows the couple on their trek back and forth across the country from college town to city, from crisis to crisis.

According to Delbanco, Gardner and his wife, Joan, worked on the novel by recounting their lives together into a tape recorder, and John later fashioned the material into a tight, controlled work of fiction.

SHADOWS, on the other hand, is a loose chronicle of the chaotic world of myopic, bookish private detective Gerald Craine. Stumbling through life in an alcoholic fog, Craine tries desperately to discover order and permanence in a world of too many words, too much history, and much too much violence. In its episodic way, SHADOWS also constitutes a search for self, for identity, in a world controlled by circumstance and chance.

Both of these novels are achievements, each in its own way. STILLNESS is an honest, often painful, dissection of a relationship, written with insight, warmth, and understanding SHADOWS contains a genuinely engaging character, Craine, and fascinates through its wacky logic and plot. Both works highlight, as much of Gardner’s prose does, the importance of art as the only stay against the confusion and impermanence of modern life.