October Light

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1530

John Gardner, whose previous works have wedded fancy to fact and myth to metaphysics, offers such a union again in this, his new novel. In it, he combines the elements of the earlier works that earned him a literary reputation of considerable stature. The philosophical complexity and existential questioning of The Sunlight Dialogues appear here in full measure. Blended well into this new novel are also the literary skill, echoes, and knowledge of The King’s Indian, his 1974 collection of short stories. Finally, the simple realism of Nickel Mountain finds its way into Gardner’s new novel.

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This novel, his eighth work, consolidates Gardner’s reputation as a major writer. Having earned that reputation with works of wide diversity and undisputed merit, including Resurrection (his first novel), The Wreckage of Agathon, Grendel, Jason and Medeia, and the above-mentioned three, Gardner offers October Light as a measuring stick of his maturation as a writer and of the growth of his concept of fiction. The novel’s eclectic assemblage of ideas and elements from earlier works—both his and those of others—is a testament to the sophistication of the work and the writer.

October Light is primarily concerned with the American character, with observing in detail its traits and characteristics. Gardner turns a simultaneously critical and sympathetic eye towards these traits, examining them each as separate entities and as integral parts of the whole. He examines the American sense of tradition, its emphasis on values, its sense of both equality and superiority, its belief in free enterprise and the freedom to amass wealth, its obstinacy, its belief in principle, and its belief in the morality of labor. Noting the conflicting nature of many of these traits, Gardner presents them, nonetheless, and the resulting paradoxes help imbue his characters with realism and credibility. In October Light, Gardner’s characters are human above all, earning both our admiration and our pity.

On the simplest of terms, this novel concerns the relationship between James L. Page and his older sister, Sally Page Abbott. James, a widower of seventy-two, finds his life changed by the return of Sally to his house to live, a return made necessary by the exigencies of her financial situation. A firm believer in traditional values and a man of the most conservative political opinions, James finds the foundations of his beliefs shaken and the basis of his opinions challenged. This challenge to his way of life comes not so much from his sister as it does from the things she represents and the things of the world outside of James’s home that she brings with her, most notably, television.

For James, television is both obscene and ungodly. It represents the temptation of the devil and the desires of the flesh. It encourages greed and violence. He sees TV game shows as blasphemy and high treason, and television dramas as an outrage against sense. He had told Sally in the beginning that she could come and live with him, but that she could not bring her television. Defying him, she brings it, and, finally, when he has been pushed to his limit, James loads his shotgun and shoots the television without warning.

Following the shooting of the television, he and Sally continue an argument for some three weeks—an argument growing out of their diametrically opposed ideas and out of their competing efforts to gain a certain provincial control over some element of their relationship. Finally, James again feels forced into an unalterable course of action. In a cold rage at what he considers the stupidity of Sally’s opinions, he picks up a piece of firewood and, brandishing it like a club, chases her upstairs to her bedroom where he locks her in.

This is both the beginning of the novel and its basic conflict. Sally goes on strike, refusing to leave the bedroom to do any work, and James refuses to let her out of the bedroom. Sally’s revolution against the status quo and James’s obstinate defense of the system—although the system may in this case be no more than the way things have always been done on his farm—combine to give October Light its tension. This “war of the bowels,” as James calls it—so named because it is a test of whether he gives in to his constipation before she gives in to the diarrhea caused by a diet of apples only—becomes allegory.

October Light, however, is more than merely this allegory with its moving, honest, and detailed observations of life in New England and of life for the elderly. It is also a most ambitious literary undertaking. Although the cast of characters of October Light is not as extensive as that in The Sunlight Dialogues, Gardner presents two entirely separate and unrelated casts of characters in this novel, as well as two unrelated plots occurring simultaneously. This duality lends strength and tension to the work, emphasizing and enlarging the meaning in one plot by employing a contrapuntal answer to it in the other.

Gardner introduces the second plot of the novel by having Sally find a badly worn paperback book of questionable quality, entitled The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock, in her room. Bored by being locked in her room and intrigued and titilated by the apparent tone of the novel, Sally begins reading it, finding herself caught up in the activities of a ring of marijuana smugglers, the attempted suicide of a character named Peter Wagner, the sexual promiscuity of the characters, and their endless questioning of existence and its meaning. Gardner insures that the reader not only knows that Sally is reading the novel, but that the reader also reads the novel with Sally. To do so, he presents both novels within the cover of the same volume, distinguishing between the two by changing typefaces.

The novel-within-the-novel, The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock, a story written by Gardner and his wife, becomes a reflection of the action occurring between James and Sally, though it is a reflection seen in a carnival mirror. The faces and the forms are gnarled, misshapen, extended, shrunk, expanded, and narrowed. This story seems to be several things, but Gardner will not permit it to assume any single identity. One of the characters, a rather cold-blooded black man, discusses existentialism and recites Shakespeare. Another, Dr. Alkahest, an eighty-year-old doctor confined to a wheel chair, who has acute sensitivity of hearing and smell, seeks only the exhilaration of sensual escape. Captain Fist is the carnival’s freak. Revolting in appearance, he attempts to justify the amassing of wealth as necessary to the defense of the “American Way.” World-weary, Peter Wagner seeks suicide and wrestles with sexism.

Gardner makes of this story-within-a-story a microcosm of society, a focused examination of a contained community. Through the actions of this group, Gardner forces the reader to examine the cornerstones of society, including law and justice, suggesting that, in the end, laws are not by necessity just.

More provocative than these ideas, however, is the possibility that “Lost Souls’ Rock” is, in fact, James’s idea of heaven. This idea is suggested by the descriptions Gardner uses for both. In describing James’s conception of heaven, he writes of it as “. . . some shadowy mountain calling down to intuition, some fortress for the lost made second by second and destroyed and made again....” Similarly, he describes, within the context of the novel, The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock, the island as rising “. . . like a black, partly fallen natural castle....”

The connection is made stronger by James’s idea of the Devil’s temptations as being all dazzle and false hope, as false as the idea of"... escaping from the world of hard troubles and grief in a spaceship,” and by the conclusion of the novel The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock, in which a flying saucer figures prominently.

This novel-within-a-novel becomes an allegory for, and an amplification of, the conflict between James and Sally, just as their conflict is, itself, an allegory for a much larger conflict. The greatest testament to Gardner’s skill in constructing parallel plots which appear so diverse is that the stories, the characters, and the action of the conflict between James and Sally are all thoroughly believable and realistic. The meshing of the two stories is intricately done with the reader switching from one to the other without any forced or false shifting on the part of the author. Part of this is due to the fact that Gardner has arranged for portions of The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock to be missing, thereby forcing the reader back to the present conflict between brother and sister.

October Light is an ambitious undertaking and one that succeeds remarkably well. Gardner must be commended for his expansive concept of fiction and for his vigorous extension of previously established limits for the genre of the novel. But perhaps the greatest ingredients of his success are his attention to detail, his honest and sympathetic portrait of his characters, and his capable plotting. October Light is a fine novel, and John Gardner is, above all else, an incredibly compelling storyteller.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

Butts, Leonard. The Novels of John Gardner: Making Life Art as a Moral Process. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Butts draws his argument from Gardner himself, specifically On Moral Fiction (that art is a moral process), and discusses the ten novels in pairs, focusing on the main characters as either artists or artist figures who to varying degrees succeed or fail in transforming themselves into Gardner’s “true artist.” As Butts defines it, moral fiction is not didactic but instead a matter of aesthetic wholeness.

Chavkin, Allan, ed. Conversations with John Gardner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Reprints nineteen of the most important interviews (the majority from the crucial On Moral Fiction period) and adds one never-before-published interview. Chavkin’s introduction, which focuses on Gardner as he appears in these and his other numerous interviews, is especially noteworthy. The chronology updates the one in Howell (below).

Cowart, David. Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Discusses the published novels through Mickelsson’s Ghosts, the two story collections, and the tales for children. As good as Cowart’s intelligent and certainly readable chapters are, they suffer (as does so much Gardner criticism) insofar as they are concerned with validating Gardner’s position on moral fiction as a justifiable alternative to existential despair.

Henderson, Jeff. John Gardner: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Part 1 concentrates on Gardner’s short fiction, including his stories for children; part 2 contains excerpts from essays and letters in which Gardner defines his role as a writer; part 3 provides excerpts from important Gardner critics. Includes chronology and bibliography.

Henderson, Jeff, ed. Thor’s Hammer: Essays on John Gardner. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1985. Presents fifteen original essays of varying quality, including three on Grendel. The most important are John M. Howell’s biographical essay, Robert A. Morace’s on Gardner and his reviewers, Gregory Morris’s discussion of Gardner and “plagiarism,” Samuel Coale’s on dreams, Leonard Butts’s on Mickelsson’s Ghosts, and Charles Johnson’s “A Phenomenology of On Moral Fiction.”

Howell, John M. John Gardner: A Bibliographical Profile. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980. Howell’s detailed chronology and enumerative listing of works by Gardner (down to separate editions, printings, issues, and translations), as well as the afterword written by Gardner, make this an indispensable work for any Gardner student.

McWilliams, Dean. John Gardner. Boston: Twayne, 1990. McWilliams includes little biographical material, does not try to be at all comprehensive, yet has an interesting and certainly original thesis: that Gardner’s fiction may be more fruitfully approached via Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism than via On Moral Fiction. Unfortunately, the chapters (on the novels and Jason and Medeia) tend to be rather introductory in approach and only rarely dialogical in focus.

Morace, Robert A. John Gardner: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984. An especially thorough annotated listing of all known items (reviews, articles, significant mentions) about Gardner through 1983. The annotations of speeches and interviews are especially full (a particularly useful fact given the number of interviews and speeches the loquacious as well as prolific Gardner gave). A concluding section updates Howell’s John Gardner: A Bibliographical Profile.

Morace, Robert A., and Kathryn VanSpanckeren, eds. John Gardner: Critical Perspectives. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. This first critical book on Gardner’s work covers the full range of his literary endeavors, from his dissertation-novel “The Old Men” through his then most recent fictions, “Vlemk, The Box Painter” and Freddy’s Book, with separate essays on his “epic poem” Jason and Medeia; The King’s Indian: Stories and Tales; his children’s stories; libretti; pastoral novels; use of sources, parody, and embedding; and theory of moral fiction. The volume concludes with Gardner’s afterword.

Morris, Gregory L. A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. Like Butts and Cowart, Morris works well within the moral fiction framework which Gardner himself established. Unlike Cowart, however, Morris emphasizes moral art as a process by which order is discovered rather than (as Cowart contends) made. More specifically the novels (including Gardner’s dissertation novel “The Old Men”) and two collections of short fiction are discussed in terms of Gardner’s “luminous vision” and “magical landscapes.”

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