Stillness and Shadows
From the publication of On Moral Fiction in 1978 until his death in 1982, John Gardner engaged in a literary battle that, as now seems clear, helped change the face of contemporary American fiction (though not, unfortunately, without the loss of much of the postmodernist irony and energy that fueled some of Gardner’s own work). For this largely posthumous victory, Gardner was forced to pay a high price during that same four-year period: the precipitous decline of his standing as a novelist. Having set himself up as the arbiter of “true art,” he became an easy target for both those critics who had legitimate doubts concerning the appropriateness of a “moral fiction” in a postmodern or even postcontemporary age and for those who found in Gardner’s interesting, though certainly not rigorously argued, theory a convenient means for dismissing his fiction without feeling obliged to take the trouble to examine the stories and novels more thoroughly and intelligently. The publication of Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982), the last of his works to appear in his lifetime, and the posthumous publication of two guides for student writers, On Becoming a Novelist (1983) and The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (1984), only seemed to seal further Gardner’s fate, despite the appearance of several books by academic critics on Gardner’s art and despite the fact that (except for an ending which even Gardner must have thought silly) Mickelsson’s Ghosts evidences a resurgence of Gardner’s novelistic powers rather than a decline. The appearance of these two manuscript novels, Stillness, composed in the mid-1970’s, and Shadows, conceived at approximately the same time and worked on sporadically until the author’s death, will very likely not change anyone’s mind about Gardner’s status as a contemporary American writer. This is doubly unfortunate: first, because the moral fiction controversy has come to overshadow Gardner’s entire career (and in doing so, the controversy points as well to a serious shortcoming in American literary criticism, both academic and popular, which remains remarkably literal minded), and, second, because Stillness and Shadows are not so much flawed novels as unfinished texts of considerable merit, which offer a fascinating glimpse into Gardner’s approach to art as a process, as a groping after truth.
Shadows survives only as a collection of fragments and has been heavily edited by Gardner’s close friend and fellow novelist, Nicholas Delbanco, who cut thousands of words and spliced the remainder together to form a semicoherent whole. Instead of anything even remotely resembling the author’s final intention, least of all one that would support his frequent claims that this would be his most important novel, Shadows does offer the reader Gardner’s multiple approaches to a problem that is at the narrative and philosophical center of all of his fiction. Stillness, on the other hand, appears here as Gardner left it, in the form of a complete but largely unrevised first draft. He wrote it thinking not in terms of publication but instead of psychotherapy, though he did manage to rework parts of it into two of his most accomplished short stories, “Stillness,” which, like much of the larger novel, concerns Gardner’s wife, Joan, and “Redemption,” a psycho-fiction in which Gardner works through the guilt that he experienced as a result of his part in his younger brother Gilbert’s accidental death. If his purpose in writing this novel was to save his marriage, then as therapy Stillness certainly failed. As art, however, it succeeds admirably, providing one takes into account its status as a draft.
At times repetitive and over- (or under-) written, Stillness’ “personal, unmediated prose,” as Delbanco calls it, nevertheless evidences not only Gardner’s uncanny ability to establish setting and characters precisely and evocatively but also, and perhaps more important, as in The Sunlight Dialogues, to transform the particular into the universal, the realistic fact into the archetypal pattern. Thus, his story of Joan and Martin “Buddy” Orrick’s marriage gradually comes to evoke Gardner’s larger concerns and career-long preoccupations: the fall from innocence, the uses of memory (and the need for remembering), and the possibility of affirming a world beyond the self or, more specifically, a world beyond the self-regarding cynicism in which all of Gardner’s fallen characters—Agathon, Grendel, Taggert Hodge, Freddy, Mickelsson, and the rest—take refuge. The fading away of love in the Orricks’ marriage is not an isolated fact but instead further evidence of the accelerating demolition going on all around them. The Dragon’s message to the murderous yet still innocent Grendel in Gardner’s Grendel (1971) is that “things fade; alternatives exclude,” and, as if in corroboration of this view, Martin recalls an image in a home movie of a much younger Joan, then only his cousin, not yet his wife, the image growing fainter and fainter until “suddenly she vanished like a...
(The entire section is 2125 words.)