Stranger than Nonfiction

The Girl in a Swing

by Richard Adams
Knopf, 339 pp., $11.95

Fantasy, children’s literature, and science fiction—alternatives to the realistic novel—are becoming more common, not just as popular literature but as subjects for academics to teach. The fictional techniques of Malory, Dumas, Conan Doyle, of tale tellers sitting around the fire, all are much discussed and adapted. Leslie Fiedler, in his essay “Cross the Border—Close the Gap,” wants to know if it isn’t Robert Louis Stevenson rather than his contemporary Henry James who lies closer to the heart of modern literature. After Tolkien, it would seem, the deluge.

I once saw a group of PhD examiners sitting around a table discussing John Gardner’s Grendel, the only recent novel they had read, apparently, except for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which also plays contemporary games with old-fashioned narrative. Gardner’s book On Moral Fiction, which struck me as a small-time magician’s bag of tricks, was much read and discussed a few years ago. Lead us not into the post-modernist temptations of Barthelme. Back to Basics.

The basics of Gardner’s new book are mostly allegorical. Freddy’s book, within Freddy’s Book, is called “King Gustav & the Devil,” and takes up three quarters of the pages. The rest introduces us to a hearty psychohistorian (the modern breed of academic), a professor of Scandinavian history (the old-fashioned kind of professor), and the latter’s fat monster son Freddy (the ancient sort of monster). Freddy is eight feet tall and locked up by himself in the upper stories of a Gothic mansion outside Madison, Wisconsin. The psychohistorian, who has just lectured on “The Psycho-Politics of the Late Welsh Fairytale: Fee, Fie, Foe—Revolution,” is to be maneuvered into Freddy’s house so Freddy can give him his book. Presumably Freddy knows that his old-fashioned father will pay the wrong sort of attention to his work, whereas the new breed of academic, a John Gardner type, will get it right. These opening fifty pages are written with nervous self-consciousness; Ellery Queen could get people into a haunted house more adroitly. Worse, after he and we get there, Gardner tells us too little about Freddy to justify the creaky buildup. Worse still, after we start with Freddy’s book the introductory matter fades into a symbolic background and we never return to it.

So we must find the fun of Freddy’s Book in Freddy’s own composition “King Gustav & the Devil.” The interest does pick up a bit in this tale about early sixteenth-century politics, mostly Swedish. Just as the rioters in “The Pardoner’s Tale” laugh at the old man when he says they can find Death behind a tree, so too do young Gustav and his older relative Lars-Goren feel surprise but little fear or dread when they meet the Devil:

First of all,” said the Devil, his hand on Gustav’s arm, his face pressed close to Gustav’s ear—though he did not for that reason lower his voice—“you see only the evil …

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