John Gardner Gardner, John (Vol. 2) - Essay

Gardner, John (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gardner, John

Gardner, an American novelist and critic, is the author of Grendel, The Wreckage of Agathon, The Sunlight Dialogues, and Jason and Medeia.

Think of ["The Wreckage of Agathon"] as Koestler or Solzhenitsyn transposed backward in time, and you won't be far wrong. It delineates the mental motion of the individual as sacred, whether he's a seer or not, whether he's a compulsive scatologer like Agathon or as irascibly pure as Peeker, and it exuberantly calls into question society's categorical insistences—the things brought into being at our own expense to protect us against ourselves, other people and, putatively, other societies.

Law, order, decency, the near-autonomous military, are the things John Gardner's second novel shows recoiling upon themselves, so much so that it's not a far cry from the iron rigidity of Sparta to that, say, of the Soviet bloc, or of a China most of whose books are written by the Chairman, or indeed of a United States in which the forces of so-called law and order, unable to extirpate major organized crime, have developed the role of Grundyism, and the Vice President that of plenipotentiary dodo. It makes you wonder if more people wouldn't have a better change of self-realization at the hands of chaos. And so thinks Agathon too….

Open-ended and prismatically alert, Agathon assimilates everything Mr. Gardner gives him, transforms it, slings it back muddied and asks for more like some malignly ecumenical Oliver Twist. And that's why, in the long run, I wish Mr. Gardner had given Agathon the full measure of history between Sparta and now. After all, any historical novelist who allows himself and his creatures "zonked," "pow!" and "V's for Victory," could anachronize more banefully and, I would have thought, to even more sardonic effect. This is, after all, a metaphysical—metapolitical, meta-historical—fiction, potentially as free and unassailable by pedants as "Candide."

Paul West, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 15, 1970, pp. 4, 65.

At first glance, John Gardner's new novel appears to be a blow struck on behalf of the generations of English majors who have had to struggle their way through the Old English saga Beowulf, with its mindless, mead-swilling barbarians fending off the depredations of a maneating monster.

Not so. Although Grendel recounts the first part of the story from the monster's point of view, it is much more than a literary trick. The work is in fact a prose-poem of extraordinary beauty, complexity, and virtuosity, and it unsettles the mind on nearly every page….

Readers accustomed to the thin gruel of contemporary naturalism may feel that the author overindulges in verbal pyrotechnics. Let us rather be reminded that the English language is still a magnificent instrument of expression. Grendel requires rereading not once but many times.

Ruth Leslie Brown, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, October 2, 1971; used with permission), October 2, 1971, pp. 48-9.

Mr. Gardner has a disturbing talent. There can be no doubt about that. Grendel, in addition to being the narrator, is much the most sympathetic figure in Grendel—in spite of his outrageous behavior and often deplorable opinions. What remains questionable is whether the literary object upon which Grendel is parasitic can carry the weight Mr. Gardner imposes upon it. Beowulf, for all its historic interest, remains obstinately second-rate as a work of literature. Great fleas have little fleas, as Swift once pointed out, drawing a critical conclusion from this zoological phenomenon. But per contra can a great flea survive on only one lesser specimen of the genus?

F. W. Bateson, "Grendel and Beowulf Were Two Pretty Boys," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), December 30, 1971, pp. 16-17.

Grendel will beguile you. He lumbers awkwardly, humorously down through the icy forest to watch you: at work, at play, at prayer (of whatever sort). Your poetry inspires him, your heroism amuses him, your destructive greed angers him. He goes back to his hairy mother, slightly luminous, wholly inarticulate, passionately tender, and considers the problems you set him. Sometimes, though with little joy, he eats a few of you. His god, sophisticated and immeasurably devious, tells him that you need him. Perhaps you do. Perhaps that is why you continually kill him and continually re-invent him. If only Grendel were sure.

I don't know how to do justice to this book without making it sound obscure. Certainly it's many-levelled, and written in prose so compressed and finely-wrought so as to be near to poetry. But the narrative is strong, and the other levels are mostly of the sort that catch up with you almost unnoticed. I enjoyed every word of it. I look forward to reading it again.

D. G. Compton, in Books and Bookmen, September, 1972, pp. 83-4.

"The Wreckage of Agathon," an inventive if rather baroque meditation on the status of imaginative freedom within an oppressive political order, and "Grendel," a dazzling revision of the Beowulf story that injects nightmare into the complacencies of our cultural and historical self-imaginings, seemed for all their brilliance more like strokes of theater, bright ideas carried off by extraordinary powers of execution, than fully explored fictional territories. Both, though thematically "relevant" enough, took place in a remote past, letting us see ourselves in them only around a corner. One wondered if Gardner's art might not require such a corner, if he mightn't be doomed to being a writer who could address us only in asides, winking knowingly from a long way off.

Two readings of this new novel ["The Sunlight Dialogues"] now convince me that Gardner is much more than a sleight-of-hand man. Where "Grendel" was, within its limits, virtually perfect, like a masterfully practiced stage-turn, "The Sunlight Dialogues" is ambitious, heroically flawed, contemporary (though with rich mythic resonances), absorbing moment by moment and darkly troubling after it's over.

Gardner is that rare creature, a philosophical novelist, concerned with conflicts of mind within a physical world that in itself is, as Grendel says, "nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears."…

Now Gardner looks more panoramically at a world in which men try and fail to be God, creating or maintaining ideas of order that do not meet the case. His theoretician of freedom is "the Sunlight Man," a bearded, unkempt stranger who in 1966 escapes from jail in Batavia, N. Y., to unsettle the minds and in some instances destroy the lives of the locals. He is some kind of sorcerer, adept at parlor tricks and larger illusions that seem like the real thing, but for all his delight in mystification he plays a deadly serious game. Against a law and order based on rational force, quantifying human desires and needs to protect the average and repress the unusual, he poses an engagement to freedom through improvisational fabrication, lying, heartless indifference to moral and ethical convention. As magician in a society of philosophers (policemen), he ruthlessly enacts the erratic and dangerous role of existential artist….

The novel does have a touch of elephantiasis, to be sure. The subplots, in which secondary characters pursue other figures of criminal license—a mysterious financial manipulator and a young political agitator—seem pretty redundant. (Like his hero, Gardner can't resist the lure of a good story.) More seriously, the Sunlight Man himself wears out his welcome a little too early. He's too convenient a mouthpiece for Gardner's own interests, too gifted at fictional invention, too learned and melodramatic to be entirely healthy to the book's integrity. As he grows to be a bit of a bore, one merely puts up with him in order to get more of Clumly and his poignant blind wife, more of the fall of the House of Hodge, more of the policemen, citizens and general atmosphere of Middle America, which Gardner knows as well as any novelist we've had, not excepting Updike, the early Cozzens, or even Faulkner.

But this large and beautifully written novel has room for its own miscalculations and longueurs, and I'm glad to see Gardner taking such risks. This is a remarkable achievement for a writer still in his thirties; if one ends by thinking that Gardner will have even better novels to give us, "The Sunlight Dialogues" excitingly predicts that they will be extraordinary ones indeed.

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1972, pp. 1, 14.

Let's begin with the quibble: the novel [The Sunlight Dialogues] is too long…. [Certain] kinds of novels—romances, picaresque narratives, chronicles—suffer only slightly from interruptions. The Sunlight Dialogues cannot be read at a single sitting, and it suffers gravely from the intermissions we impose upon it.

It wears its appetite on its quotation page; the introductory epigram is from The I Ching: "The earth in its devotion carries all things, good and evil, without exception." Good and evil, the things of the earth, above the earth, below it, all will be touched here, without exception. Lawnorder, crime, existential freedom, worship, magic, contemporary reference, the sociology of a small town upstate in New York, blindness, old age, madness, Babylonian justice, epic poetry, fathers-and-sons, Mesopotamian culture, all. A longer list than ever that hungry Faulkner dreamt of when he called for the "old verities."

Yet it is just those old verities that Gardner is after. His novel is no mere inventory of oddments….

The reason The Sunlight Dialogues insists on being read at a single sitting is that, despite its variety, it is a metaphor, a single metaphor, an extended meditation on the trench warfare between freedom and order. While all men wish for both—freedom and order—the conflict between them is dramatized by every decision that an artist makes. The artist will do what he will, create a million and one characters all having the same name, write a novel that demands a lifetime to be read. No: the artist does what he must, recognizes the limits, agrees to our rules so that we can play too. No; damn us, it's his cosmos. And so it goes.

And so the Sunlight Man goes through this metaphor, this dialectic. He is at once Lord of Misrule, Prometheus, Faust, the Prince of Darkness, the Artist. Clues of his journey from the underworld of hellfire litter the novel's pages. He conducts dialogues with Society, with the police chief. Sometimes they are windy lectures, sometimes magic shows….

Gardner's been this way before. As in the Babylonian Creation Epic his Sunlight Man likes to mention, Gardner has set chaos against order in Grendel. There man—civilization, artifice, Beowulf—is the policeman set to catch the monster crook, Grendel. As in Sophocles' "Antigone," the drama that seeded Hegel's conception of the dialectic, the thesis of the State's imperative clashes with its antithesis, human imperatives in Gardner's The Wreckage of Agathon, a funny and, like Grendel, a short novel. Now, third time out the gate, and still no synthesis.

But does it really matter? Resolutions in literature, apotheoses, are rare, and always to be booked on suspicion of a crime against Truth….

Trying it all, Gardner got a lot. Trying some, he might have got it all. He can, and he probably will.

Geoffrey Wolff, "Trench Warfare on the Borders of Reality," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), December 24, 1972, p. 3.

There is a wealth of authenticating, localizing, concretizing detail in the book [Gardner's new novel, The Sunlight Dialogues], and it serves an important purpose. In a novel that shows people in their different ways drawing towards patterns and schemes and theories, these details are a constant reminder of singularity, "thisness," and the whole realm of the accidental. By opening up vistas of particulars all around us, Gardner discourages us from capitulating to any of the patterns of speculation with which, at times, the book tends fairly to hum….

Of course, Gardner's novel can be faulted. Just as he shares with John Updike (and many other American writers) an obsession with entropy, so he reveals something of Updike's straining for self-vaunting but redundant simile. They should both be banned from using the word "like" for a decade. It could also be argued that some of the very long tirades detach themselves from the speakers' characters and swarm around like unattached mists of angry words. But these cavils are minor compared with the high degree of success achieved by this ambitious novel. It is a major fictional exploration into America, no less—the America that is vanishing and the problematical America of today. And without abandoning its fictional premises, it draws us into a sobering meditation on the possible shapes of our immediate future. It tells no lies yet ends with a refusal to accept despair. It does all this at the same time as it involves us in an absorbing and intricately interwoven story. This is a great deal for any one novel to do, and it should be recognized immediately for what it is—a very impressive achievement.

Tony Tanner, "The Agent of Love and Ruin," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, January 6, 1973; used with permission), January 6, 1973, pp. 78-80.

The Sunlight Dialogues is a philosophical novel, a label which used to turn publishers pale and make even critics protest that the two words formed a contradiction in terms. The novel's set pieces include, for instance, a scholarly ramble through Mesopotamia and an analytical sermon on law and order, delivered by an escaped criminal to a policeman in an otherwise empty church….

[Like] a morality play, the novel constantly moves from specific people and events toward a sort of staged warfare of good and evil. Clumly is the last tired Apollonian, struggling fecklessly to enforce the law's jots and tittles as small boys let the air out of his tires and, in fact, the old American order deflates about him. The Sunlight Man, a poet, a magician, is in essence a daemonic figure: the embodiment of all that is newly restless, newly rebellious in the American spirit….

Gardner too falters between his alternatives: between his half-mad Dionysian prophet of self-fulfillment and what, in his last novel, Grendel, he called the "patternmakers." He concludes with a rather ubiquitous prayer: "God be kind to all Good Samaritans and also bad ones. For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." This is admirable as a sentiment. But for a philosophical novel, 673 pages long, it is not a good enough idea to journey toward, to close upon. It is too intellectually ecumenical….

Melvin Maddocks, "Paleface Takeover," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1973, pp. 100-01.