Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

In On Moral Fiction, Gardner criticizes writers who create elaborate verbal palaces with no life inside, and he has Billy More issue the same complaint: “Words, whatever their sweetness and juice, turn prunes at last, and eventually ashes.” However, there is still pleasure in an elaborate, self-conscious style when the writer has confidence that he is creating more than the sand castle that Jonathan Upchurch says this story is.

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The novella-length “The King’s Indian” is full of grandiose, usually comic, celebrations of figurative language. Upchurch experiences “the smell of unlimited futurity stinging” his “nosedrills.” He sees a sperm whale with “teeth that would serve as Plato’s form for the fall of civilizations.” Billy More—all the characters are philosophers and poets—describes Captain Dirge’s house as “so crammed with brass and silver and gold it would keep a dead Eskimo sweating for fright of thieves.”

More important, “The King’s Indian” is a virtual catalog of allusions to past masters, especially the literature of the sea. The story’s mariner-guest frame and its albatrosses come from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). Miranda is named for the heroine of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), her father is Gardner’s version of Shakespeare’s Prospero, and Wilkins is his Caliban.

Most of the time, Gardner pays homage to American masters. Flint the mesmerist and ventriloquist and his spontaneous combustion come from Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798). Gardner reminds the reader of the debt that his moral tale owes to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) when Miranda refers to Ngugi as “Nigger Jim.” The mad captain’s quest for knowing the unknowable is obviously inspired by Moby Dick. Gardner’s primary homage, however is to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). Both Upchurch and Pym make unplanned, nightmarish voyages toward some mystical whiteness near the South Pole, accompanied all the way by screaming white birds. Numerous specific references to Poe’s novel appear, including Pym’s initials carved on the Jerusalem’s bulkhead.

When the guest identifies himself as Gardner, he acknowledges “the help of Poe and Melville and many another man,” and he says that his tale is “not a toy but a queer, cranky monument, a collage: a celebration of all literature and life.” Most of all, perhaps, it celebrates the storyteller as one who gives shape and meaning to existence while entertaining his audience as well.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 148

Henderson, Jeff. John Gardner: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Henderson, Jeff, ed. Thor’s Hammer: Essays on John Gardner. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1985.

Howell, John M. John Gardner: A Bibliographical Profile. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.

Howell, John M. Understanding John Gardner. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Morace, Robert A. John Gardner: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984.

Morace, Robert A., and Kathryn Van Spanckeren, eds. John Gardner: Critical Perspectives. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

Morris, Gregory L. A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984.

Silesky, Barry. John Gardner: Literary Outlaw. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004.

Thornton, Susan. On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.

Winther, Per. The Art of John Gardner: Instruction and Exploration. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

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