Published just four months before his death in a motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, John Gardner’s ninth novel, was received with considerably less than critical acclaim. Although laudatory notices did appear in the Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle, most reviewers were sparing in their praise. They found the book ambitious and praised the characterizations and descriptions of settings, but on the whole, they thought the novel seriously flawed: dull at times, ponderously written, melodramatic, indulgent, garrulous, “academic,” distracting in its unassimilated parade of philosophical ruminations, and structurally too diffuse. More important, reviews in such influential periodicals as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and Saturday Review were especially critical and at times even hostile to both the work and its author. The unfavorable response deeply troubled Gardner, who interpreted it as revenge on the part of the literary establishment for his controversial attack on contemporary literature and criticism, On Moral Fiction, published four years earlier.
To a degree, both Gardner and his critics were correct. Mickelsson’s Ghosts is not his best novel. There are factual inconsistencies and occasional lapses in style, but these do not indicate that the book was ill-conceived and carelessly executed; rather, they suggest premature publication, the price Gardner was bound to pay for committing himself to more projects than he or anyone could handle (fiction; librettos; radio plays; editing his literary magazine, MSS; teaching full-time; acting in local theater productions). On the other hand, Mickelsson’s Ghosts is a far better novel than most reviewers were willing to admit. It marks Gardner’s return to the kind of fiction he wrote prior to the publication of his “funhouse” stories in The King’s Indian in 1974. In particular, it recalls The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), the work it most resembles in scope and texture. In both of these long and ambitious works, Gardner weaves together his numerous characters and multiple plots into a unified vision that contrasts with and serves as an alternative to the protagonists’ sense of social fragmentation and spiritual discontinuity.
Broadly considered, Mickelsson’s Ghosts is two novels in one—realistic character study and Gothic thriller—and within this double framework, Gardner pursues a number of ancillary narratives, each with its own setting and cast of characters. The fragmented narrative reflects the chaotic life of Gardner’s troubled protagonist, Professor Peter J. Mickelsson, to whom the reader is introduced in the novel’s marathon 105-word opening sentence. This sentence, like the novel itself, is discursive but by no means artlessly constructed. As in The Sunlight Dialogues, Gardner has devised ways other than linear plot to link various narrative elements together: the seasonal structure (late summer to early spring) which underscores Mickelsson’s spiritual death and rebirth; interlocking networks of imagery and of cause and effect; and parallels between the various plot lines (most notably, between the pollution of the environment and the pollution of man’s spiritual nature).
Although Gardner claims to have based his protagonist on his friend, the poet James Dickey, Mickelsson is in many ways the image of his maker: he experiences a messy divorce after a long marriage; deep feelings of guilt, especially over the separation from his son and daughter; financial difficulties, which include having to pay a vast sum owed to the Internal Revenue Service; and a recent appointment to the faculty of the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he enjoys celebrity status and a reputation as a right wing “pop” philosopher. Interesting as these and other similarities are, Mickelsson’s Ghosts is not primarily an autobiographical novel or, for all its scenes of university life, an academic novel, for Mickelsson is, like all of Gardner’s heroes, representative of the contemporary man who suddenly finds himself in the midst of a crisis of faith, a crisis that is at once personal and cultural, though...
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