The King’s Indian: Stories and Tales
The Odd Woman
The Clockwork Testament or Enderby’s End
Novels by and/or about teachers of literature can be a tiresome subgenre which, since it’s hard to imagine anyone else being interested, seems usually intended for teachers of literature. The assumptions that the scholastic life somehow represents life itself or that it qualifies one to practice literature aren’t ones that dentists or bus drivers or shoe salesmen seem to make about their own professions, a modesty that ought to be encouraged. Still, it is a pleasure to find pieces from the academy with life in them.
The stories in The King’s Indian allow John Gardner to put on a variety of narrative masks, from that of teller of hip fairy tales about anxiety, madness, and marital strain to jaunty impersonations of Poe, Kafka, Melville, and John Gardner. And of course the beauty of masks is that they can come off whenever an effect is required. For example, “John Napper Sailing Through the Universe,” a tale of la vie bohème centered on an artist with the same name as the illustrator of Gardner’s Sunlight Dialogues, is told by a narrator named—like a good many other people in the book—John, a college teacher who like Professor John Gardner lives on a farm in southern Illinois and is writing an epic poem about Jason and Medea. Or consider the moment toward the end of the novella “The King’s Indian,” when the pretense that a Yankee-style Ancient Mariner is recounting his strange adventures turns out to be yet another hoax in a story of hoaxings compounded:
This house we’re in is a strange one, reader—house or old trunk or circus tent—and it’s one I hope you find congenial, sufficiently gewgawed and cluttered but not unduly snug. Take my word, in any case, that I haven’t built it as a cynical trick, one more bad joke of exhausted art. The sculptor-turned-painter that I mentioned before is an actual artist, with a name I could name, and what I said of him is true. And you are real, reader, and so am I, John Gardner the man that, with the help of Poe and Melville and many another man, wrote this book. And this book, this book is no child’s top either—though I write, more than usual, filled with doubts. Not a toy but a queer, cranky monument, a collage: a celebration of all literature and life; an environmental sculpture, a funeral crypt.
That does seem quite a lot for a book to be.
Here, I suppose, Gardner is thinking less of Poe and Melville than of someone like the John Barth of Chimera and “The Literature of Exhaustion.” In any case, I wish Gardner weren’t so eager to join the game of self-conscious fiction. Insisting on the arbitrariness of illusions puts all the cards in the novelist’s hand, and I feel a little surly about Gardner’s assumption that I, the reader, am safely “real” (how can he be so sure?) while letting me see that “John Gardner the man that…wrote this book” is just another disguise of a trickster who, like any teacher, has reserved the real power for himself.
It’s not inevitably a bad thing for a novelist to teach in a college and know a lot about literature and modern thought. One of the best stories here, “Pastoral Care,” takes place in a college town in southern Illinois beset by revolutionary student unrest. To be sure, the troubled protagonist is a clergyman, not a teacher, but the professions have their resemblances. Elsewhere the voices are those of a literate country doctor, a medieval monk, a prison administrator, a smart parent amusing his kinds with more than they’re likely to grasp; and in all these clerkish voices one hears an academic man trying out hypothetical other selves in situations in which a literary education can exercise itself to greater effect than it usually does on campus.
Gardner’s Grendel and Sunlight Man were deracinated professors, too, speculative minds placed in situations whose hostility or indifference provided a splendid tragi-comic stage for eloquent failure. And Nickel Mountain, his most restrained and best novel, has fine moments in which “ordinary” people are granted the emotional equivalent of intellectual subtlety, moments that work because self-consciousness and self-irony are not attached to them.
Nothing in The King’s Indian matches these successes. The recurrent motif is craziness, not the depressing madness of the real world but in the more amusing sense of “crazy” that in bookish conversation (like “marvelous,” “incredible,” and “unbelievable”) simply means exciting and imaginative. A country doctor who has read a great deal of Poe takes refuge from a tornado in an old farmhouse inhabited by a mad geneticist, long thought dead, who has perfected a technique for duplicating living creatures; the geneticist turns out to be a clone himself, and after he’s destroyed by the tornado the doctor finds, and true to his science and his humanity preserves, several repulsive child-clones of the original Hunter. In another story, a pious monk is beset by the anarchic whispers of freedom and crime of Brother Nicholas, a philosophical relative of the dragon in Grendel (“Your rules are absurd. The order of the world is an accident. We could change it in an instant, simply by opening our throats and speaking”). In another, a bewildered functionary tries to keep a Kafkaesque prison running as the mysterious Warden grows silent and invisible. And so on.
Much of this is made tolerable by Gardner’s great gifts for language and moral atmosphere. But only in the title story, “The King’s Indian” (referring, appropriately, to a chess gambit), is there anything like the amplitude of form and conception needed to keep Gardner’s eloquence from swamping the fable. Young Jonathan Upchurch (who, in one of Herbert L. Fink’s handsome illustrations, looks rather like the author) plans to leave Boston for (yes) southern Illinois; but at a tavern he falls in with pirates (whose captain is called Pious John, evidently another form of “Jonathan Upchurch”) and drunkenly buys from them an unsound small boat, the Jolly Independent, with the money he’d saved for a farm. Enraged and humiliated, he sails recklessly into the Atlantic and is rescued from his not so jolly independence by the whaler Jerusalem, bound for the South Pacific with (oddly) slaves below deck. Jonathan, a resourceful youth of the kind that pervades American fiction, becomes a member of the crew and tutor to the ravaged Captain Dirge’s intriguing daughter Augusta, with whom he promptly falls in love.
I won’t attempt to summarize the elaborate reality games that follow, except to say that, a time-loop being suspected, the Jerusalem may be the ghostly double of the Jerusalem that may have gone down with all hands off the Vanishing Isles some years before; the Captain may be—no, wait, is—the mesmerist Flint who performed in Boston with his daughter Miranda in Jonathan’s childhood, but it takes a while to locate the real Flint among his clockwork surrogates, especially since he’s a master ventriloquist and hypnotist, and there are distracting mutinies, murders, and rapes going on all around. But we get an upbeat ending, in which Upchurch and Augusta-Miranda set sail for the seacoast of southern Illinois while Old Glory flutters overhead:
“—Homewards, my sea-whores,” I shouted from the masthead. “—Homewards, you orphans, you bandy-legged, potbellied, pigbrained, belly-dancing killers of the innocent whale! Eyes forward [Upchurch himself is wall-eyed], you niggers, you Chinese Irish Mandalay Jews, you Anglo-Saxons with jackals’ eyes! We may be the slime of the earth but we’ve got our affinities! On to Illinois the Changeable!”
Academic vaudeville can be good fun, and Gardner in these stories does play with classic American uneasiness, the mixture of fascination and mistrust toward portentous appearances, the yearning to strike through the mask even as you fear that there will, after all, be nothing much behind it. But The King’s Indian is irksome in its reaching for the outrageous, the crazy, the (I’m afraid it must be said) cute, and I can only hope that it has done this immensely gifted writer some good to get these things out of his system.
Next come two novelists who are new to me, though between them they’ve published seven books of fiction. Diane Johnson’s The Shadow Knows is told by a woman known to us only as “N.,” a kind of Impatient Griselda who may hold at least the West Coast record for ill fortune. N. is a graduate student of linguistics, recently divorced by an infantile lawyer, stuck with four children in a shabby housing project in North Sacramento, fearful that she’s lost her lover (a colleague of her husband’s), harassed by obscene phone calls from Oscella, the deranged black woman who had been her housekeeper, worried about money, possible pregnancy, qualifying exams, and life in general.
As if all this weren’t enough, she begins to suspect that someone is out to get her. Her door is hacked and smeared with some vile substance (“like a mixture of blood and vomit and crankcase oil”); there are noises and maybe faces at her windows at night; her present housekeeper’s underpants are stolen off the line and de-crotched; phone calls that may not be from Oscella begin arriving; a strangled cat is left on her doorstep; Ev the housekeeper is attacked and beaten in the laundry room; the tires on N.’s car are slashed; she finds Ev dead in bed (pancreatitis or murder?); she has a miscarriage in the Sears parking lot; her friend and confidante Bess visits her with a hunting knife in her purse; finally she’s raped in her dark garage by an unidentifiable assailant.
But Feminist Gothic, women victimized by a congenitally malevolent male aggressiveness, isn’t exactly what The Shadow Knows is up to. Understandably, N. would like to know who’s doing all these bad things to her, if only to be sure that she’s not making it all up. And since we also wonder if she may not be doing that, we share her desire for knowledge. The history of her suffering is a kind of mystery story, with some of that genre’s suggestion that even banal crimes involve philosophical and moral puzzles as well as the practical ones of apprehension and punishment. N. senses this herself as she fantasizes a “Famous Inspector” who might be able to solve not only her case but her life.
The horror resides not in the acts perpetrated against N., which even she can’t be sure are connected in the person of a single enemy, but in the appalling multiplicity of suspects. There are so many people who might have it in for her: Gavin the ex-husband; Oscella the lunatic moralizer, convinced that N. is a harlot; one or another of Oscella’s or Ev’s men friends, balefully black at least to N.’s anxious white imagination; figures of casual conflict, like the Mexican supermarket checker she recently insulted; Bess the envious, resentful “best friend”; her lover’s wife or even the evasive lover himself; the detective who takes what seems to be an ambiguous interest in her problem.