John Gardner (1933-1982)

by John Gardner Jr.

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John (Champlin) Gardner (Jr.) 1933–1982

American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, essayist, dramatist, and editor.

Gardner's career, although relatively short, was diverse and distinguished. He worked in nearly every genre, including children's fiction, opera libretti, and scholarly criticism, and his writings reflect the rich legacy of Western culture. Some of Gardner's fictional works are set in his birthplace of Batavia, New York, and also in New England, while others have such historical settings as ancient Greece or medieval Scandinavia, in which he recreated historical and fictional narratives as well as inventing his own. Gardner is often called a "philosophical novelist," for regardless of the setting, his works address timeless philosophical questions. For example, in Grendel (1971), Gardner retells the fourteenth-century Scandinavian legend of Beowulf and also explores the relationship between good and evil, the necessity of facing death, and the value of art. In his contemporary novels, Gardner often incorporates philosophical ideas from the past in order to show their relevance to the present. Gardner also made use of stylistic traits of others. He cited Chaucer as his greatest influence, yet also acknowledged the importance of William Gass and the creations of Walt Disney to his work.

Gardner was a professor of medieval literature and creative writing at several American universities before his first novels were published, and he continued teaching throughout his literary career. The Resurrection (1966) and The Wreckage of Agathon (1970) earned a modest amount of critical attention, but the publication of Grendel established Gardner's reputation as an important new novelist and was followed by such critical and popular successes as The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), and October Light (1976), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Gardner explained his enormous productivity during the 1970s by observing, "When you're sitting writing for fifteen years, and nobody liking you, you do build up a backlog. I've been publishing an early work, a late work, an early work…." Gardner's popularity diminished somewhat in the late 1970s. On Moral Fiction (1978), a controversial book of critical theory, was unflattering to many of his literary colleagues and perhaps can be blamed for the largely negative reviews of his last books, The Art of Living and Other Stories (1981) and Mickelsson's Ghosts (1982). Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident a few months after the publication of Mickelsson's Ghosts.

Gardner's novels and short stories follow the philosophy of art delineated in On Moral Fiction. Gardner believed that an artist is responsible for creating works which affirm life and present inspirational visions, and he criticized nearly all of his contemporaries for being more concerned with "technique" than "truth" and presenting the "creepy" side of life without holding out any hope to their readers. The Art of Living and Other Stories illustrates fictionally the critical principles espoused in On Moral Fiction. Characteristically, the ten stories contain a wide variety of settings and include both realistic and fantastic approaches, but nearly all of the stories treat a single theme: the value of art as a life-affirming moral force. In "Nimram," for example, a dying girl befriends an older, prestigious orchestra conductor and is uplifted when she hears his symphony. Gardner's concern with art can be seen in his earlier works as well. In some of his novels, the protagonists are professional or amateur philosophers, which allows Gardner to discuss many provocative issues. In Grendel, Gardner explicitly argues the primacy of art. The monster Grendel witnesses several phases in the emergence of Western civilization, but dismisses all of the various cultural innovations, with the exception of poetry, as unhealthy. Gardner calls the poet in Grendel "the Shaper," and Grendel realizes that the poet is the guiding force in society.

On Moral Fiction can be seen as an apologia for Gardner's earlier works. Although the protagonists in each of his first four novels face their own deaths, these works are not pessimistic. James Chandler, the terminally ill protagonist in The Resurrection, achieves a "resurrection" by performing a compassionate act shortly before his death. In The Wreckage of Agathon, a historical fantasy set in the fifth century B.C., an aging philosopher reflects upon the chances for good to triumph in an already corrupt society after he is imprisoned and sentenced to death. The Sunlight Dialogues, set in modern-day Batavia, parallels Wreckage in that the central character, The Sunlight Man, is jailed and about to be killed. The Sunlight Man is an insane visionary whose spirited personality is contrasted favorably with that of his jailer and persecutor, Fred Clumly, to whom order is all-important. In all of these novels, Gardner presents characters who are close to death as metaphors for all humankind, and assures his readers that salvation can be found in the artistic creations of the human mind.

Although Gardner was unquestionably one of contemporary literature's most important authors, many critics complain that his novels are weighted down by philosophizing, are overly long, and do not read well. These accusations are made especially about The Resurrection and Mickelsson's Ghosts, in which the central characters are philosophy professors. Critics have often made negative use of On Moral Fiction in interpreting Gardner's later works. Some contend that the themes of the stories in The Art of Living, taken directly from On Moral Fiction, overpower the stories themselves. Initial reviews of Mickelsson's Ghosts were largely negative and sometimes hostile. Many critics saw the novel as Gardner's attempt to answer the commentaries elicited by On Moral Fiction and charged that he was expressing his philosophy at the expense of writing an interesting novel. On Moral Fiction itself was judged as arrogant, self-serving, and wrongheaded. Critics disputed Gardner's contention that art can radically change people's lives. Nevertheless, Gardner is widely respected for presenting artistically the principles in which he believed and for creating an ambitious and innovative body of work.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68, Vol. 107 [obituary]; Something about the Author, Vol. 31 [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)

Julian Moynahan

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Most of the 10 stories in John Gardner's new collection ["The Art of Living and Other Stories"] develop the common theme of art and its vexed relation to life. This was also the subject of Mr. Gardner's book-length essay, "On Moral Fiction."… There he made substantial use of Tolstoy's argument for a strictly moral art, as developed in the pamphlet "What is Art?" Some of Tolstoy's later fiction is sadly marred by his determination to make his artistic instincts conform to doctrinaire moral and religious views. Certainly it is possible that Mr. Gardner runs a comparable risk in following up his moralizing essay on fiction with stories closely related to it in theme. But before addressing that problem let's recall what "On Moral Fiction" had to say.

In it he argues that all good art, including prose fiction, should be moral. By this he means it should be life-enhancing, protecting human existence from the dark forces of chaos (the "trolls") pressing in from all sides and coming up from below, seeking whom they may devour. In making this argument he is quite hard on many of his fellow writers, issuing such dismissive decrees as "bad art is always basically creepy."… These magisterial judgments are consistent with Gardner's idea that "true art treats ideals, affirming and clarifying the Good, the True and the Beautiful," that "real art creates myths a society can live instead of die by."

While there is something of the Welsh preacher, full of righteousness, in John Gardner, perhaps even something of the upstate New York prophet in a direct line from Joseph Smith, many pages of "On Moral Fiction" make lively reading, and it's a positive pleasure to see various fashionable gloom spreaders and doomsday peddlers get it in the neck. Yet one wishes that Mr. Gardner gave more evidence of having deeply meditated on modern history, and that he would avoid such juvenile terms as "creepy" in assessing mature art and artists. I suppose Giacometti's sculptures are in his sense creepy, yet their contribution to modern art and life is major. On the other hand, Mr. Gardner's title story, "The Art of Living"—about a small-town chef slaughtering and ragouting a small black dog stolen from a pet store—is very creepy, and I believe I could survive the shock of being enjoined never to reread it.

The worst thing about this story is not its central event, or the idea that event may illustrate, but its technical ineptness. The narrator, supposedly a member of an adolescent motorcycle gang during the early years of the Vietnam War, looks back on that period from a time considerably later but never establishes any significant relation between "then" and "now." His and his companions' speech patterns of the earlier period lack flavor and verisimilitude, and the various Italian-American males connected with the restaurant where the canine feast is prepared are hard to tell apart. Also, the story lacks a consistent economy of treatment, so that we are told too much about this or that person or incident, too little about others. The thing reads like a try at a novel that didn't work out, not like a crafted short story.

Rather better is the story "Nimram." The title character is a prominent conductor of late-Romantic symphonic music, much preoccupied with his own success, who finds himself next to a 16-year-old girl on a flight from the West Coast to Chicago. It turns out she is dying of an incurable disease, and this shows Nimram his vulgarity in worrying about being recognized in public or being interviewed by People magazine. In a brief epilogue, the child is brought to Orchestra Hall, where Nimram is conducting a hugely augmented Chicago Symphony in Mahler's Fifth Symphony: "… she had never in her life heard a sound so broad, as if all of humanity, living and dead, had come together for one grand onslaught."

Here no doubt is an instance of art's life-affirming quality, but is it truly what a young girl with an incurable disease, who has had some recent experience playing in the string section of her school orchestra, would hear in the music? I don't think so. This tiresome "humanizing" of music tends to be a vice not of the young, but of fiction writers and second-string critics meeting deadlines. (pp. 27-8)

The best story in "The Art of Living" is "Come on Back." It is a heritage piece about rural and Welsh roots which produces pleasing variations on the theme of art through an informed, affectionate look at the Welsh passion for choral singing. By far the worst and longest story is "Vlemk the Box-Painter," a tedious pseudo-medieval allegory about the painting of a "speaking likeness" of a princess on a rosewood box. There is nothing to be said in its favor, except that Mr. Gardner, in conceiving it, going on with it and publishing it, shows the courage of his moral convictions. (p. 28)

Julian Moynahan, "Moral Fictions," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 17, 1981, pp. 7, 27-8.

Douglas Hill

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There are 10 pieces in [The Art of Living], in diverse modes—gothic folktale and fantasy, down-home rural comedy, evocative memoirs of childhood and adolescence in western and northern New York state. Many of the stories focus upon some crisis of artistic expression, nearly all catch a crystalline moment and refract it into a spill of glittering images or sharpedged memories. The book is not experimental in any avant-garde manner; Gardner's too much the medievalist for that. Still, it is marked with impressive surprises at every turn. (p. 51)

Gardner is a master of the economical opening; he gives a reader just enough setting and background to slip him effortlessly into the world of each tale. With voices he's equally adept. He never seems to labor as he shifts from the stylized narrative of Vlemk to the quirky ironic recall of a misunderstood ex-hoodlum to laconic Bible Belt patois (in The Joy of the Just) that would do any of Flannery O'Connor's "good country people" proud.

Readers familiar with Gardner's work will recognize his primary images—light and dark, river and valley, travel and flight. There's humor in these stories, and a full measure of graceful, unstudied prose. He is never hard on his characters. In his recent critical book, On Moral Fiction, he speaks approvingly of moral art which "seeks to improve life, not debase it," which "seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us." Gardner meets these standards easily.

What gives these stories their power is Gardner's interest in the connection between the moral and the possible. From first (Nimram, a worldly middle-aged man's perception of life and death in his encounter with a doomed young girl) to last (The Art of Living), Gardner is consistently a romantic moralist. His stories are like the box-painter's vivid pictures of gardens [in Vlemk the Box-Painter]—"accurate in their depiction of both the beauty and the sadness of the world as it is." There's considerable expertise in this book, and courage and joy. (p. 52)

Douglas Hill, "Between the Moral and the Possible," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1981 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 94, No. 23, June 8, 1981, pp. 51-2.

Bruce Allen

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If the author of such basically dissimilar books as "Grendel," "October Light," and that curmudgeonly manifesto "On Moral Fiction" is noted for any particular qualities, they are probably his distinctively energetic and impudent variety and vitality. Some of the variety, at least, surfaces in ["The Art of Living and Other Stories"]….

For example, there's the least typical story here, "The Joy of the Just," which portrays a moralist turned avenger, an elderly woman bent on destroying her (perfectly innocent) "offenders." The conception is promising, but the development is repetitious and dull—finally, it's a pointless story, enlivened only by some combative Bible-quoting.

Whenever Morality per se doesn't rear its head, Art does. "Trumpeter," for another example, announces itself as a picturing of "the only kingdom in the world where art reigned supreme"—but it relaxes into anthropomorphical whimsy….

Several other stories ("Nimram," "Redemption," "Stillness") deal with the evocative or restorative powers of art (specifically, music). "The Music Lover"—an acknowledged steal from Thomas Mann—contrasts the ravaged emotions of an elderly "concert devotee" against the pomposities of a satanic composer, whose music becomes in performance an avant-garde exercise in atonality and discord. Here again we feel the "moral fiction" argument stirring: an advocate of "decency" in art opposes "one of those fashionable nay-sayers."

The contours of fable are traceable elsewhere. "Vlemk the Box-Painter" is an interminable allegory about a painter whose creations assume their own life—thus complicating and compromising his. The idea that artistic creations enter, despite themselves and their creators, into "reality" also suffuses "The Library Horror."

The idea that Art is more than a match for Life also (almost) animates the title story (note the reversible nature of that title?), the silly tale of a revivifying collusion between a restaurant cook who thinks he's an artist and a gang of smalltown layabouts who yearn to be feared as "motorcycle hoods." Gardner uses the standard medieval forms of knightly quest and formal debate, setting up a dialectic between the claims of social organization and individual freedom. But the elements never cohere: arbitrary whimsy and atrocious dialogue keep us at a distance from the world of the story.

I read on, rubbing my eyes, wondering if there would be any relief from this fun-and-games obsession with those enormous cloudy abstractions Art-and-Morality, Art-and-Life, this tepid schoolmarmish medievalism.

Well, there is relief, in the splendid story "Come on Back." This is a loving portrait of a Welsh farming community in upstate New York, and an intimation of adulthood for the young narrator enthralled by his elders' penchant for singing and "magic." It isn't really a story (though the dying of a beloved uncle provides a narrative thread); rather, a refreshing immersion in period and local detail. Though Gardner is often a slapdash writer, he has here achieved some beautiful observations … and images….

The art that created "Come on Back" doesn't need any fabulistic trimmings or joky justifications. I hope that the artist who created it will pass beyond defending and examining Art, and keep on producing it.

Bruce Allen, "From Gardner, Short Stories Dimmed by Abstractions" (reprinted by permission of the author; © 1981 The Christian Science Publishing Society), in The Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 1981, p. 17.

Kent Thompson

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Arnold Deller is a practitioner of the most ephemeral of the arts. He is a cook. But because he is an artist, he knows that an artistic response is fitting when his son is killed in Vietnam. Art is love, he says. And because that son had written to him about the joys of eating an ancient Chinese dish called Imperial Dog, Arnold believes that he must prepare that meal in honour of his dead son….

That's a brief summary of the title story in John Gardner's The Art of Living and Other Stories. It is probably the strongest story in the collection, if only because of its central image. But its point is clear: art is first of all an act of love—Arnold cooks the meal as a tribute to his dead son. It is also a continuation and extension of an ancient tradition. By preparing and serving the meal Arnold has put himself in touch with his son and all the ancient Asian traditions epitomized by the meal. And by serving it to a new audience, Arnold is enlarging the art…. And finally, Arnold fulfils the commercial demands of art as well as his identity as an artist. No one is an artist until someone defines him as such by buying his art. When [the motorcycle gang] The Scavengers pay $1.50 a plate they are confirming Arnold's status.

With one exception, every story in the collection is equally concerned with the various relationships between art and life. (p. 9)

These are stories that are written to be discussed. And as such, they are perhaps to serve as a corrective to Gardner's On Moral Fiction…. In that essay Gardner was very perceptive about the creation of art, less so about the intentions of art, and least of all about its function in society. He was in fact sometimes malicious and devious in his arguments. However, he was passionately clear about his feelings. He is an old-fashioned idealist who believes that art should provide models for right human conduct. But by the time he had shoved all the art he admired into the categories of his ideals, the categories had become so all-inclusive that he had become inconclusive.

But because Gardner is first of all a fiction writer and not an essayist, it should not be surprising that his stories are more coherent than his abstract prose. In fact it seems to me that most of these stories contradict entirely one of the chief demands he made for fiction in On Moral Fiction, where he wrote: "moral art holds up models of decent behavior … characters … whose basic goodness and struggle against confusion, error, and evil … give firm intellectual and emotional support to our own struggle."

In The Art of Living and Other Stories he has done something quite different. He has not presented exemplary characters. Instead, he has written stories from which we might draw moral truths. Therefore, although the stories are often instructive, they do not necessarily illustrate good moral character. Quite the opposite. We must see that the ostensibly good old lady, admirably crusty in character, in "The Joy of the Just," is actually guilty of the sin of pride. And if we are to emulate his characters, how far should we go? Arnold Deller, cook, might show the way to metaphysical connections with the dead by means of art: but if you or I should serve up cooked dog we would surely be arrested; if we served up pot roast of cocker spaniel, we would surely be lynched.

I am not being entirely facetious. The story "Nimram" suggests that art is an answer to the fear of death. Perhaps—but not entirely. The image of the musician and the dying girl on the airplane brought to my mind the very similar image in the farcical film Airplane. There the joy of musical performance is such that the passengers delight in it, ignoring the little girl—whose life-support system is disconnected—and they sing blithely on while she croaks. There's a harsh moral truth there, and an apt criticism of Gardner's point.

Many of his stories in fact invite comparisons, and few of them are flattering to Gardner. For example, the old lady of "The Joy of the Just" immediately invokes Flannery O'Connor's masterpiece, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and next to it Gardner's story seems thin and contrived—the more so when one realizes that the characters seem to be drawn from Li'l Abner and/or The Beverly Hillbillies. And perhaps the narrator of Arnold Deller's story is in fact The Fonz, from Happy Days. Certainly he is not a biker of the kind we recognize on the streets or in the courts. And Gardner's use of flat popular stereotypes—the absent-minded professor in "The Music Lover," or the bookworm in "The Library Horror"—is almost certainly deliberate.

Although in On Moral Fiction Gardner is very hard on writers who use thin characters to promulgate or examine ideas, he is much more generous when he finds something very similar in medieval literature…. And clearly in these stories he wants to communicate a certain doctrine about art. Not surprisingly, he seems to do this best in the quasi-ancient fairy-tales of "Trumpeter" and "Vlemk the Box-Painter." He is clearly much happier with the metaphoric truths of the fairy-tale form than he is with the factual observations to which he must restrict himself in the stories of the present.

In fact it seems to me that there is a crippling contradiction at the heart of Gardner's most recent writing. On the one hand he believes in writing that illustrates or exemplifies doctrines of right conduct. On the other hand he believes that fiction is an exploration of the imagination and the intuition…. [Each] of the stories in The Art of Living seems scrupulously planned to prove or illustrate a particular theory about art and life.

It is perhaps this contradiction between intention and belief that makes Gardner's stories succeed as theories and fail as art. Because although it is possible to have works of art about art—examples from Keats, Browning, Yeats, and Joyce Cary spring to mind—Gardner's stories do not achieve what they set out to illustrate.

They are, in the end, illustrations of ideas. Their consequent value is therefore not in what they are, but in what they lead us to talk about. They seem to be written for professors and students, and indeed, if one were looking for a text with which to teach a course entitled "Art and Society," one could look a lot farther and do much worse than to choose Gardner's The Art of Living and Other Stories. But if one wanted, like Arnold Deller, to set a work of art before an audience to continue the tradition and enlarge their taste—a real feast of beast, as it were—one would be wise to choose Grendel—by John Gardner. (p. 10)

Kent Thompson, "Intimations of Morality" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Books in Canada, Vol. 10, No. 7, August-September, 1981, pp. 9-10.

Robert R. Harris

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It is a good bet that John Gardner enjoys writing his novels far more than the public enjoys reading them. Mickelsson's Ghosts is dreadfully long and padded, and it often degenerates into drivel.

Gardner has striven to become America's Tolstoy, or, perhaps in this new novel, its Dostoevsky. He's failed, but has convinced a lot of critics. In a split of critical sensibilities, the National Book Critics Circle, by a single vote, conferred its 1976 fiction award on Gardner's October Light over Renata Adler's brilliant Speedboat. The majority of one was convinced that Gardner had something deep to say about bicentennial America and fiction-writing, mistaking for profundity his workmanlike ability to describe rural life and characters and his simplistic ruminations about, for example, the evils of television. It is rare to find a review of Gardner's fiction that does not respectfully dub him a "philosophical novelist."

In this new work, Gardner takes this praise literally. His protagonist is a philosophy professor. Readers are required to sit through endless classes during which they are subjected to long sophomoric discourses intended to solve, once and for all, such pressing questions as whether Plato and Aristotle were really fascists. It is a maddeningly talky book; abstractions are bandied about in a sleep-inducing dialectic. As he has done in earlier novels, Gardner ponderously tries to infuse his discussions of basic notions (order vs. freedom, nature vs. art) with originality.

Gardner's confidence that he's an originator of ideas has gotten him into trouble. He was accused of "borrowing passages" from scholars in his The Life and Times of Chaucer; he admitted to "paraphrasing." On the defensive, he writes in this novel's acknowledgments that he has "borrowed ideas and good lines" from Martin Luther, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Norman O. Brown, Martin Heidegger, and—if that's not enough to cover himself—from "acquaintances, friends, and loved ones." He's also effectively hidden them. The ideas in Mickelsson's Ghosts are so muddled that one doubts that anyone would want to claim them.

Gardner's connection with ideas has always been dilettantish. His book On Moral Fiction was, for the most part, a diatribe against those who write more sophisticated—better—novels than he does. An early foray into the cultural conservatives' trendy war on contemporary writing, it was a cut above the kind of literary massacre that the old regime at Harper's perpetrated every other year or so. (p. 70)

[In] Mickelsson's Ghosts, Gardner's efforts to clarify and explore moral truth turn on a muddied, ambivalent relationship between Mickelsson and Gardner himself.

Peter Mickelsson, "on the dark side of fifty," is a philosopher and author whose orderly life disintegrates when his marriage breaks up. He has left Brown University for the lowly State University of New York at Binghamton and a rundown house in nearby rural Pennsylvania. Mickelsson's son has gone underground to pursue terrorist activities against the nuclear-power industry. Mickelsson worries about him a lot. He loves his daughter, too, and wants to pay his ex-wife more in alimony than he earns. The IRS is on his trail. He has affairs with a fellow teacher and a teenage prostitute. He condescends to academic colleagues and students. And Gardner involves him in a neat little murder mystery. (Are the murders the work of local Mormons, or a sinister homosexual conspiracy, or the nuclear-power industry as representative of the evil forces of the Modern World?) This mystery holds the reader's attention; when Gardner gets around to spinning a yarn he can be quite good—at times sensitive and even funny.

And Mickelsson is haunted by ghosts—an incestuous brother and sister who did guess-what to their child. The ghosts are present to scare the bejesus out of Mickelsson and to force him to ruminate—philosophically, of course. Gardner needs the ghosts, you see, to show that although fiction aspires to tell the truth about life, that truth needn't be realistic. The fantastic happens—ghosts exist! The reader, however, might reasonably want to hear more from the ghosts and less from Mickelsson. If there is anything more insufferable than a whiny philosopher, it is a philosopher who whines about Wittgenstein.

As a philosopher about literature, Gardner holds that although fiction should be moral (i.e., that during the creative process the artist affirms what is good for man), a character may do evil. As a result, Gardner distances himself from Mickelsson, hoping his character will "get his just deserts hereafter." But because the distancing applies only to Mickelsson's acts and not to what he thinks, it is not convincing. Too often, Mickelsson is a garrulous spokesman for Gardner. When Mickelsson reflects on his own writings, one is more than a little suspicious that he is expressing Gardner's high opinion of Gardner…. The old claim to originality persists, even though one of the major lessons that Gardner has to offer in Mickelsson's Ghosts is this startling gem: "Women are people too; that was the crushing wisdom of modern love." And it isn't nit-picking to wonder if the admission of occasional carelessness sanctions the moral morass that Gardner gets into when he lets Mickelsson first call some Marxist sociologists Nazis, then later claim that it is those who run the nuclear-power plants who are Nazis. The "moral" artist would have made some distinctions.

When his teenage prostitute becomes pregnant, anti-abortionist Mickelsson robs a man to pay the girl to have the baby. To inject some moral "ambiguity" into the scene, Gardner makes the victim a former bank robber. During the robbery, the man is stricken with a heart attack, and Mickelsson watches him die…. Gardner does not excuse Mickelsson's actions. But he does allow Mickelsson—like Gardner, a self-appointed "ranter against sloganers and simplifiers … indefatigable shamer of the shallow-minded, fulminator against the frivolous and false"—to get away with the arrogant assertion that there exists a "widespread practice of aborting when the foetus is not of the parentally desired sex." Widespread? It is obvious that Gardner enjoys—and mostly approves—Mickelsson's clichéed view of the world, and therefore the novelist never convinces us that he himself believes that Mickelsson has "lost the ability to tell the truth." Gardner may chastise Mickelsson for what he does, but Gardner is so taken with Mickelsson's thought-processes (because they are so much his own) that he fails to make clear just how creepy Mickelsson's ideas are. (pp. 70-1)

Late in the novel, Gardner defines religious fundamentalism as "permission not to think." Some of his own fundamentalist ideas about how to write fiction seem to invite the same definition. He has attempted to equal the great Russians—to write "something obsessive and morose and no doubt philosophical"—but as a philosophical novel, Mickelsson's Ghosts is a sham. Stripped of its excesses, however, it does have enough substance to have made a good Raymond Carver short story. (p. 71)

Robert R. Harris, "What's So Moral about John Gardner's Fiction?" in Saturday Review (© 1982 Saturday Review Magazine Co., reprinted by permission), Vol. 9, No. 6, June, 1982, pp. 70-1.

Anatole Broyard

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There are different ways of enjoying a book. For most of "Mickelsson's Ghosts," John Gardner's new novel. I felt like sprawling out in a big chair and just having a good time with it, taking the pleasure as it comes. It seemed to me to be doing just about everything a novel can do. It offered characters I liked, but who troubled me, so that I wanted to see them feeling better, doing better. It gave me the kind of sense of place that one doesn't often find in serious novels today: A thick texture of landscape, community, friendships, infatuations, intrigues, insanities.

Mickelsson, the protagonist, has a romance with a house, rebuilding and redecorating it as a preliminary or a substitute for rebuilding or redecorating himself. The house is haunted by its past, just as he is, and Mr. Gardner manages this so adroitly that one can almost regard these "ghosts" or apparitions as creatures of Jung's racial unconscious. Mickelsson's wife, Ellen, who has just thrown him out, is a fine portrait of the sort of person Mr. Gardner was opposing when he wrote "On Moral Fiction." She is one of those trendy people who hates every human contract or convention as an infringement on her freedom….

Nothing in fiction has a stronger pull than a man with some greatness in him who is teetering between self-realization and ruin, who is frightened by the possibility of greatness, by the scope of the questions he's asking. I found myself pulling for Mickelsson, hoping he'd either make it or go to hell with himself and give up his ghosts, that he'd come to terms with his anguish either way.

Mr. Gardner is an old-fashioned novelist in the best sense—he gives you more people, places, problems and ideas to think about than you can possibly deal with. It's as if the world had suddenly become unbearably vivid again, after all our disillusionment and irony. I've often felt that people in modern fiction don't seem to want enough things, to lust after experience as they appear to do in my experience—but Mr. Gardner is surely an antidote for that trend. His people are a hotbed—what a wonderful word that is—of all kinds of desires: political, esthetic, sexual, and quite a few that baffle description.

He knows how to catch the small, sad, comical, cruel, or bland irrationalities of small-town people—and he's just as good on the pretentions and grandiosities—deserved and undeserved—of intellectuals. He knows the difference between love and sex and shows us what a fearful struggle it is not to confound one with the other….

My only complaint against "Mickelsson's Ghosts" is that, toward the end, Mr. Gardner writes as if he were on a wild binge, as if he were determined to compensate us for all the listless or lifeless novels we've read in the last 10 years. He's like a manic host at a party who pours champagne over our heads instead of into our glasses. Mickelsson goes through so many convolutions or evolutions that I began to lose the comfortable, satisfying feeling that I knew him. It's one thing to be perplexed in the middle of a novel and another to be perplexed at the end.

Yet there's a feeling somehow of justice in it all, as if Mr. Gardner were saying, "Here, I'll give you characters! I'll give you plot! Take that! And that!" If you read "Mickelsson's Ghosts," as you certainly should, I suggest that you simply lift out some of its too-muchness and paste it into some of the current novels that leave you feeling hungry or shortchanged.

Anatole Broyard, "A Scrabbling in the Soul," in The New York Times (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 12, 1982, p. 19.


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It's a rule, seemingly, that a Gardner novel will be—in at least one of its dimensions—the story of somebody's intellectual life.

And for part of its extreme length, "Mickelsson's Ghosts" obeys the rule. As with any novel set in academia, there's a measure of plain socializing in its pages (the inevitable stiff academic dinner party) and a good deal of caricature (the inevitable artsy-clerksy faculty musicale). But there's also—highly unusual in academic novels—a serious representation of teaching and thinking….

We're offered a believable account of peaks and pits in the desk life of an academic essayist, and at intervals the novelist engages a genuinely challenging philosophical theme, namely the mind's endless—and doomed—hunt for self-knowledge….

In the early going Gardner works hard and effectively to maintain a tight seal between the particulars of his hero's emotional life and the brainier flights of his fancy. What does an aging philosopher's infatuation with a corrupt teen-ager signify about man's nature? What are the roots of the soul's misgivings about abortion? What kind of solace can physical labor afford? Why is disbelief in manifestations of the supernatural both vulgar and foolish? The questions spring directly from the specifics of the hero's dailiness, and the notion that he, as a philosopher, might undertake to address them in philosophical terms seems entirely reasonable.

But as the book proceeds, the gap widens between thought and action, mental events and turns of plot. The task the author has set himself emerges as that of yoking a novel of sensibility and ideas to a mystery tale about Mormons bent on hiding seamy secrets of the saints from hostile eyes. In theory, this isn't an impossible task. A decently loose and baggy novel is supposed, after all, to be capable of accommodating everything from toothbrushes to apparitions. And links do exist between Mickelsson and Mormonism….

Still, despite these efforts, the marriage of philosophy and mystery doesn't come off, largely, I think, because as Gardner thickens his plot he thins out his voice. The Mormon line of narrative in "Mickelsson's Ghosts" brings with it a termitelike infestation of crime-story cliché. The novelist's voice grows duller and flatter—loses variousness and flexibility. The intricate, emotion-laden questions about supernatural manifestations and the sanctity of life give way to "Then why was Thomas Sprague's house burned? Who cut his throat?" All at once we're in a world of snub-nosed pistols and eyes closed to slits, people stopped in their tracks who "shoot looks" at each other, stand up "needing to pace" or cry out, "Wait a minute!" as Solutions Dawn. The hoped-for successful mix of tones and modes doesn't materialize, and the novelist behaves as though he'd never had anything in mind in the first place except unraveling, in standard crime-story jargon, a perfectly conventional mystery.

Criticism, Gardner wrote in "On Moral Fiction," gives us "art cleaned up and clarified, at worst reduced to what the critic considers its main point"; complicated emotional developments are transformed "into logical progression," and artistic vision becomes thesis. Implicit in this contention is Gardner's pride that his own art resists cleanup, and in truth it has done so on occasion—witness the remarkable blend of novelistic forms and voices in "October Light"—and undoubtedly will do so again. But the book at hand leaves an impression of self-dilution and diminishment. Reductively simplifying the complicated emotional and intellectual quandaries with which it begins, "Mickelsson's Ghosts" does to itself something more harmful, even, than what the author thinks criticism does. It transforms the stuff of its own potential vision, not into a thesis, but into canned goods—a standard-brand thriller with a queer Gothic hum in the background. (p. 26)

Benjamin De Mott, "A Philosophic Novel of Academe," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 20, 1982, pp. 1, 26.

Selden Rodman

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To judge from John Gardner's 10th novel [Mickelsson's Ghosts], published shortly before his death last month in a motorcycle accident at age 49, he believed in ghosts. Also in witches, hex signs and divergent spectral assemblies, such as a government-supported group of Mafia landfillers and a Mormon-affiliated SS troop called the Sons of Dan. Although Peter Mickelsson, Gardner's primary witness to these questionable incarnations, is a philosophy instructor who might well be cast as "the nutty professor," the weird phenomena are visible to more responsible friends and colleagues as well. The author thus seemed to indicate that he indeed thought them real.

But the spooks are only used to set the scene. What, if anything, they have to do with the plot is impossible to deduce. This is a novel that asks the question: Can a man who is being sued for alimony in excess of his earnings and pursued by IRS agents, criminals and spirits, a man who impregnates a teenage prostitute, harbors a terrorist son and inadvertently commits a murder, still find happiness with the woman he loves?…

Mickelsson is full of ruminations on Life, Death, Truth, Beauty, Meaning, and Suicide, punctuated with quotations from Plato, Kant, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and especially Nietzsche. This is a serious work by a serious intellectual, right? Well, the nutty professor certainly displays his credentials….

Gardner's own curriculum vitae was quite impressive. Author of 15 books and recipient of abundant critical acclaim, he had even sought to define art. In a collection of essays, On Moral Fiction, he wrote: "… true art is moral; it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us…. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for an analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach … moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action."

Using Gardner's criteria to assess his last work, one must ask: Is Peter Mickelsson a moral man? By conventional standards, absolutely not. The first thing we see him do is kill a dog…. He deliberately snubs a suicide-prone student by not inviting him to a party. He ignores his children.

At the same time, he does feel responsible for the lives he touches. He is ready to give his ex-wife anything and everything—making concessions far beyond his means that she hardly seems to deserve. We wonder what horrors he must have perpetrated to feel so much guilt. (The author never tells us.)… [Mickelsson] worries about the suicidal young man, he worries about his children. He worries a lot. The suggestion is that concern equals morality….

Mickelsson's moral stature is, at best, dubious. Nevertheless, he is a survivor. Retribution through suffering is his strongest claim to a happy ending. Anyone who gets through so much misery, Gardner seems to be saying, is entitled to whatever he can salvage.

Selden Rodman, "Gardner's Last Novel," in The New Leader (© 1982 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXV, No. 18, October 4, 1982, p. 18.


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When one stands back to consider the shape of John Gardner's works as a whole, certain recurring "obsessive metaphors" or polysemous "figures" (in the terminology of Charles Mauron and the Russian Formalists) force themselves upon the imagination. One of the most resonant of these figures is the magician as artist or criminal. The figure involves the idea of a shaper—part magician, part storyteller—who purposely manipulates reality and therefore may either enhance or violate it.

If the shaper's medium is verbal, he becomes a fabulist, liar, or poetic visionary. The seer Agathon, with his queerly sunlit eyes, Taggert Hodge the Sunlight Man, and Jonathan Upchurch, glib Yankee fan of magicians, are compulsive talkers. They are also in several ways fictional analogues of the artist as writer (talker) and seer. Ordinary people in Gardner's books are likely to fly off the verbal handle as well, becoming temporary sybils or ranters. One thinks of James Chandler philosophizing, and of John Horne in the same book; of the shaper-skald and Grendel; of Henry Soames and Fred Clumly, whose novel resolves itself in his public speech. As the 107-year-old poetess Miss Woodworth remarks irritably in The Sunlight Dialogues, "yakety yakety yakety." (p. 114)

Of the great talkers in Gardner, a striking number are criminals as defined by society—hunted outlaws or prisoners. The obvious examples are Agathon, the imprisoned cynical Socratic character whose incessant and intemperate speech is a devious tool to provoke and enlighten his disciple, Peeker; Taggert Hodge, who likewise is either in jail or in hiding throughout his book, and whose talk similarly is both inadvertent compulsion and purposeful manipulation meant to deceive or instruct; and the Devil, archetypal criminal, whose powers of persuasion and magic cause the events in Freddy's Book…. The notion of words and stories as "smugglers," potent as marijuana at heightening or replacing (violating) our sense of reality, returns us through another circular path to our figure of the artist as potential criminal, at worst a Captain Fist.

Metaphoric prisons, containments and preventions abound in Gardner. Like plots or rules of conduct, they often offer the imprisoned characters a structure within which to work. Freddy's book, for example, is his only means of expressing himself from his voluntary imprisonment in his room. Another imprisonment which facilitates transcendent understanding is James Chandler's apprehension of nearing death, which urges him towards a more generous and emotional sense of human life. Chandler's death is brought about by an act of generosity: breaking the doctor's orders, Chandler leaves his house to assist a dubious Magdalene-like girl. The novel's final tableau of the dead Chandler ("candle maker") lying in a grotesque crucifixion, somewhat heavy-handedly proclaims that his gesture is an imitation of Christ that redefines a narrowly medical idea of "health" to include the spiritual. To break the doctor's law is to restore the law of humanity. (p. 115)

The virtue of laws and prisons is that, like artistic conventions, they give one something to violate or defend. Prisons and crosses not only martyrs make: they construct a reality with depth of landscape, history, and human significance. Like God, Gardner makes humanity and sets it in a walled garden (for his work is also pastoral). There is no escape except into "singing the wall," as he shows in Grendel and elsewhere. There is no magical short cut, no exit….

Language is never neutral in Gardner. It either imprisons or liberates. Again and again an imprisoned man chooses between the language of liberation and the language of slavery. Often the languages are disguised. Grendel allows his fear to extend to language, which in turn paints a fearful landscape. "I shrieked in fear; still no one came" he wails as he hangs in the tree trunk and is charged by a bull in the Taurus chapter. (p. 116)

Yet all one has is language and its silent partners, emotion and thought. If they are solipsistic, what recourse is there? The notion of life as an unsolved question, or wall, is central in Gardner. Main characters are set the task of solving the riddle, on pain of one or another form of death. (p. 117)

The syntactic analogue of imprisonment is enchassement or embedding. The term, taken from traditional poetics, denotes the projection of the grammatical figure of subordination into a closed narrative structure so that one gets framed stories within stories, each ending where it began and serving to delay the action of the main tale…. Essentially it is a folk tale structure; as such embedding would appeal to Gardner the historian and medievalist. (p. 118)

Virtually all of Gardner's novels are embedded. All of them backtrack and use flashbacks to prolong reaching the end. Amazingly, all the novels except Nickel Mountain employ explicit frame stories or other clear framing devices which enclose or divide the works by returning to the same setting or motif. The Resurrection begins in the graveyard where Chandler is buried and returns to retrace his life; the whole novel is a flashback, as is The Sunlight Dialogues, whose prologue takes place after the events and after Clumly's wife has died. "The King's Indian" opens with the aged Upchurch qua Ancient Mariner recounting the novella as a story from his youth: it, too, is a flashback. Every few chapters Gardner brings back his reflexive frame in which Upchurch recounts his tale to the angel who sits in embarrassed judgment. The Wreckage of Agathon, too, starts near the ending of the chain of events in the book, with chapters alternately divided between Agathon and Peeker until the end, where a mature Peeker's vantage envelops the dead Agathon's. Jason and Medeia's narrator returns periodically; his reactions frame and punctuate the tale, which like Grendel, is a return to the past in several senses. October Light and Freddy's Book provide obvious examples of embedding. (pp. 118-19)

Delay is a temporal analogue of imprisonment. Gardner's technique resembles the opposed story and plot movements Todorov finds in popular fiction and which appear in the form of embedding in folk stories. Gardner insists on suspense as morally necessary as well as being a cornerstone for plot (by which he means structured and hence meaningful experience which offers more than texture and stylistic felicity). His defense of suspense, which he typically achieves through embedding structures, is central to his artistic and moral purpose…. (p. 119)

Gardner repeatedly delays action on one plot line to further another line, or interrupts one with an intrusive narrative from a frame story or a different text, until the novel's main level of reality is, if not called into question (as in Freddy's Book), at least modified and substantially deepened. Essential to this discontinuity and the paradox or riddle Gardner means to convey is suspense, which he achieves in three ways: through flashbacks, delays in the plots (often occasioned by scenes of entrapment), and imagery. In a large sense, all are forms of embedding.

Suspense often takes the form of flashback given in characters' memories. Through flashbacks Gardner reveals his abiding concern with history and how people can come to terms with it or try to escape it. Given Gardner's commitment to character—which more than anything else sets him apart from many contemporary novelists—flashbacks are a natural way for him to show what is significant about a situation for the person living through it. (p. 120)

Both The Sunlight Dialogues and The Wreckage of Agathon are delayed by long prison scenes that occasion flashbacks. Static imprisonment scenes are given very early in both novels and are held like a long cinematic still or a strongly stated key signature. The scenes of imprisonment extend through many chapters, damming the flow of plot…. Confinements throw the alternatives each character embodies into sharp relief as people literally jostle each other under pressure; imprisonments also offer Gardner occasions to interweave alternative texts or plot lines, as in October Light and Jason and Medeia. And every time Gardner shifts his book to different sets of characters, he has a chance to delay the interrupted plot.

Through imagery Gardner also creates suspense. Attica prison looms on Batavia's skyline throughout The Sunlight Dialogues. Grendel lives in caves and is obsessed with existential walls. Often a delicate nostalgia hints at a vulnerable, finite humanity caught in immensity's chaotic flux. (p. 121)

Sometimes Gardner shifts scenes so rapidly that plot merges with imagery to suspend action. A description from the first chapter of The Sunlight Dialogues, "The Watchdog," marks time while the Sunlight Man waits in prison and Clumly and his wife sleep in their house…. The imagery evokes how the lawless life of adolescents, lovers, and hunters heedlessly breaks through a multiplicity of metaphoric confinements and how this vital chaos illuminates, and dwarfs, the small drama of Clumly and Taggert Hodge. The imagery shoots beyond the tale to paint the walls of the universe, while the sleeping actors lie suspended in their lives' cocoons. (p. 122)

Gardner's paradoxes pose characters an ethical choice: whether to attribute paradox to the world or to themselves. If, as Grendel at first does, a character gives up and assumes the world is merely relative, unintelligible, and therefore deserving no allegiance or engagement, he makes a moral choice leading, as we have seen, to mute solipsism. But to choose to accept the paradox as a mysterious wall or limitation caused by one's narrow perspective and determine to solve it by extending one's scope and reaching out into another's experience, as Clumly and the Sunlight Man do, requires a certain belief, a sense of significance about people and the world.

To embody this heightened and firm communication with outer reality, Gardner's writing depends heavily on descriptions so distinct and original that they can magically heighten the most mundane subjects. Time and again Gardner indulges us with metaphors, similes, and adjectives slipped in before nouns…. Usually the descriptions are embedded in a surrounding sentence. Interjections between dashes, parenthetical remarks, and other devices that sandwich description into sentences are numerous…. (p. 123)

More than his peers, Gardner uses frames to question fictive reality and moral vision. His more recent works, The King's Indian and Freddy's Book, and the epic poetic novel Jason and Medeia, increasingly draw on framing devices and odd narratives using heightened language—Spencer's description of closed novels fits them perfectly…. Frames allow Gardner three major innovations: the use of the text as a character, the deliberate placement of the reader in opposed fictive realities, and the entrapment of the reader in the narrative paradox.

Gardner uses the device of the frame, which sets off disparate texts, to make texts into analogues of characters. He opposes stories within stories as he opposes characters within the same plot line—say Taggert and Clumly, or Jason and Medeia. A text—The Smugglers of Lost Souls' Rock or King Gustav & the Devil—is made to bear ethical weight and occupy significant space (as many or more pages than the ostensibly "real" or enclosing narrative), and is elevated to the stature held by a person whose choices, in this case, must be deduced from the odd, often hidden narrator's implicitly moral, or amoral, viewpoint of the world. The text's actions and language bear on the novel's total interpretation as if they belonged to a chief character in the main line of the plot, but they exist on a higher dimension which transcends the division between text and containing novel.

The reader's placement within opposed and alternating realities is an issue in all of Gardner's recent works. In Freddy's Book, for example, the reader is stranded in the inset tale at the book's end somewhere in medieval Scandinavia. In "The King's Indian" the reader is drawn sometimes to the sympathetic listening angel, eager to be pleased but made of delicate sensibilities and easily offended by poor taste and improbable lies. Other times, during the more realistic passages, the reader obliviously inhabits Upchurch. The ability to manipulate the reader's imaginative locale makes for an effortless reflexivity; every time Gardner shifts us, the reader's dislocation is an implicit comment on what went before. When the angel balks at the great white boobylike albatross which flops on the deck of the Jerusalem after Upchurch downs a psychedelic given him by an avatar of Queequeg, it is hard not to think of the discriminating angel as the reader; the angel's objections are also a sly comment on the absurdities of much postcontemporary writing.

In using the frame this subtly, Gardner almost dissolves it. In his hands the metaphoric wall between fictive spaces becomes more like a door or window inviting the reader one step beyond. The wildly different texts make the novels mysterious and unresolved: there is nothing in the novels that contains all the frames and texts in a final interpretation. The reader's mind is essential as only his consciousness contains all the stories and can read the complex message of their relationships. The reader completes the novel in the process of reading and thus supplies the answer to the books' deliberate paradox. In the end it is the reader who confronts the Sphinx of the novels.

In conclusion, the magician in Gardner operates as the shaper of frames but also passes through them to gain a greater perspective on the known social structure and make forays into the unknown. The reader also participates in magic; to read him is to be creator and escape artist, to claim kin with magicians. Gardner sometimes sees himself as a mystic and will remark on his intuitions and his family's interest in magic. Yet he is also distinctly unassuming. Whether or not one draws parallels, it is evident that again and again Gardner opposes texts or characters who exemplify, in Frye's categorization, the eiron or self-deprecator and the alazon or impostor. The true magician in Gardner is the self-deprecating eiron: the humane, passive Agathon as opposed to the dangerous, deluded and deluding false magician Taggert, who manipulates in order to confuse. Clumly, and even more Clumly's suffering wife, are the eirons to Taggert's alazon. As text, The Smugglers of Lost Souls' Rock is alazon to the eiron of the surrounding novel, as a trumpet to a quiet landscape. In Gardner's balancings, appearances deceive: when a character speaks truth he is likely to sound ridiculous. If a man starts out idealistic and handsome (Taggert, Agathon) he will tend to end as an unsightly, mad wreck. Life is grim enough in Gardner. Yet—and here lies his hopefulness—suffering can ennoble. Work pays. Nothing ventured in good faith, with belief and compassion, is wholly lost. It is true that thematic resolutions and transcendences often accompany brutal accidental deaths in Gardner: Bale's death tries Soames and offers him a fatal choice—to learn or die. But if Gardner sees no good as unmixed, then (such is his humanism) an evil, once confronted, can bring good. The criminal can be society's surgeon. Even the false magician can startle insight and provoke us beyond his frame. (pp. 126-28)

Kathryn VanSpanckeren, "Magical Prisons: Embedded Structures in the Work of John Gardner," in John Gardner: Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren (copyright © 1982 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, pp. 114-29.

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John Gardner (1933-1982) Long Fiction Analysis