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So Big

I carry with me several fanciful images of John Gardner as a writer. One of them is of a backwoods preacher, a bit wild-eyed, a bit long-winded, contemptuous of city slickers, and proud of a pulpit voice that can shiver the timbers at the back of the church. This is the fellow who grew up in western New York not far from that “burnt-over ground” on which so many offshoots of the Puritan decadence flourished weedily in the nineteenth century—Mormons, Spiritualists, Shakers, and the Perfectionists of the Oneida Community. He is the author of generally uplifting books full of rural wisdom and small-town folkways—The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, and the authentic parts of October Light; he is also known for that scalding tract against contemporary triflers and sinners, On Moral Fiction. Another image is of a pipe-smoking academic, a medievalist with a Frodo haircut and a weakness for monsters, the creator of Grendel, the popularizer of Chaucer, the enthusiast of myth and epic and things gothic. Still another is of a hip philosopher, a classroom spellbinder eager to argue all night on the subject of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

The actual John Gardner is obviously a man of great productive energy, willing to try his skills in a wide range of genres, some of them distinctly archaic or unfashionable. Despite the triumph of Grendel, that admirable fantasy upon a Beowulfian theme, Gardner seems most successful as a realistic writer, especially when dealing unsentimentally with the farmers, hardware-store proprietors, small-town librarians, policemen, etc., whose attitudes, speech-rhythms, and habits he knows with a native’s undeceived intimacy.

I found October Light both moving and persuasive in its account of the quarrel between a stubborn, hard-bitten old Vermonter and his equally stubborn and spunky old sister. But in that novel, as in so much that Gardner has written, his undoubted powers are offset by startling lapses in taste or judgment. He is likely to introduce inappropriate material (i.e., the interpolated sections of a “trashy” paperback novel in October Light), to go on at excessive length, to wax philosophical at the expense of the work’s dramatic integrity, to bedeck his often impressive conceptions with too many flashing or dangling symbols. Perhaps the nadir of such judgmental lapses occurs in the recent Freddy’s Book, four-fifths of which is devoted to a tedious preLutheran fable, “King Gustave and the Devil,” purportedly written by the monstrous and pathetic Freddy of the book’s title.

His new book, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, is an immense, baggy novel, loosely packed with four or five plots, several competing genres, a small army of characters, and enough thematic material to fuel a dozen all-night bull-sessions. Its primary course of action concerns the upheavals—emotional, professional, and (in both senses) psychic—of a professor of philosophy, Peter Mickelsson, who (like Gardner) teaches at the State University of New York in Binghamton. Separated but not yet divorced from an embittered wife who devours most of his income, worried about his college-age children, barely holding his own after a psychotic episode, bedeviled by bouncing checks and the persecution of the IRS for unpaid taxes, Mickelsson is indeed in a bad way:

Mickelsson, once the most orderly of men, a philosopher almost obsessively devoted to precision and neatness (despite his love of Nietzsche), distrustful if not downright disdainful of passion (his pencils always sharpened and formally lined up…), a man dispositionally the product of a long line of Lutheran ministers and one incongruous, inarticulately rebellious dairy farmer, Mickelsson’s father…. Who would have thought that he, Peter Mickelsson, could come to this? Sweating, drinking, listening for visitors, sleeping off depressions or hangovers, he wasted so much time (more and more, these days) he began to feel almost constant guilt and panic. His stomach was so sour he was forced to eat Di-Gels like candy. “So this is what it’s like to be poor,” he would say to himself, cocking one eyebrow or staring, suddenly lost, at the broken plastic soap-dish in his rusty shower stall.

This passage not only states the man’s plight but illustrates Gardner’s sweeping and somewhat rhetorical approach. He presents his protagonist with an amplitude of detail, recording every twinge, moral or physical, that Mickelsson undergoes, analyzing every flicker of his dreaming or waking consciousness. The reader is immersed in the personality of this increasingly desperate man for nearly six hundred pages; no direct access is allowed to the awareness or perspective of any other character.

Mickelsson has much to endure. Discontented with his grubby existence in Binghamton, he acquires (broke though he is) the old Sprague farm outside the decayed town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, in the blighted area known as the Endless Mountains. Commuting irregularly to his classes at SUNY, he devotes much of his time to fixing up the old house, drinking, and brooding as he works. From a crusty old man with a gift for dowsing, Mickelsson learns that the house, which is decorated with hex signs, is said to be haunted—a fact that might explain the somewhat odd behavior of the people involved in selling it. Almost at once weird things begin to happen in the house and its environs—strange noises, the inexplicable smell, from time to time, of freshly baked bread or cake. Mickelsson encounters trucks barreling along the highway at night without headlights. Mysterious intruders ransack the house in his absence. He hears rumors of witchcraft in the neighborhood, of marauding bands of motorcyclists, of the illegal dumping of atomic waste materials.

Two black-coated Mormons present themselves at his door, and he learns that the Latter-Day Saints are eager to buy up property in the area and that the Sprague farm itself may once have been occupied by the prophet Joseph Smith. Mysterious burnt-out patches appear in the landscape. And then, after various premonitory signs, the ghosts appear: first, “a bearded old man with red-webbed, milky, near-sighted eyes and no teeth except a few in the front” and next, some days later, an angry-looking old woman in “a flowerprint housedress with a faded pink robe over it, her dark, graying hair brushed straight down, to the backs of her knees.” Given Mickelsson’s distraught condition, his unbalanced love-life, his late hours and heavy drinking, how is he—or are we—to understand these apparitions?

Meanwhile, back in Binghamton, a nongothic academic novel has been developing, complete with departmental rivalries, faculty parties, a brilliant but possibly suicidal student who attaches himself to Mickelsson, and a campaign on the part of Marxist members of the Sociology Department to get rid of their beautiful colleague, Professor Jessica Stark. Mickelsson is in love with Jessica, but he is also in love with—or obsessed by—a strange teenage prostitute named Donnie, who lives in a Susquehanna tenement. Still another plot-twist involves a mysterious fat man who lives just below Donnie—a man whose hoard of greenbacks tempts Mickelsson into an action that will cause him much anguished searching of his soul. Then there is the whole story of Mickelsson’s complex relationship with his ex-wife, told in lengthy flashbacks, and of his concern for his children, especially his son, who is involved in antinuclear activities. His parents and his grandfather, too, pay extended, nonghostly visits from the past.

In the latter part of the novel the Mormon element becomes prominent. In his foreword to Mickelsson’s Ghosts, Gardner acknowledges his indebtedness to two books on the Mormons and lists his literary sources, among them Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. He might also have included the creator of Sherlock Holmes, for in the Mormon subplot Gardner revives the old story of the Mormon secret society known as the Sons of Dan, the “Avenging Angels” who pursue apostate saints to their death—a subject sensationally exploited in that first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet. I will not spoil the prospective reader’s fun by revealing how a certain fat philosopher turns out to be none other than a self-appointed Danite intent upon murder….

Thus there is a plenitude of plot as well as an amplitude of detail. Perhaps “plethora” would be the better word, for Gardner is unable to give proper attention to all the lines of action that he has begun; under his perfunctory care, they tend to languish like sickly plants competing for nutriment and sunlight in an overseeded flowerbed. Despite the grisly and tragic details in the account of the ghostly old brother and sister, little dread or sense of the uncanny is generated. Mickelsson is so bombarded by dreams, memories, pangs of conscience, hallucinations, and assorted existential fears that the ghosts—who in one instance, at least, are seen by someone other than Mickelsson and must therefore be presumed to have an “objective” existence—seem merely one more threat to the poor fellow’s beleaguered sanity.

In like manner, the story of academic intrigue lacks tension; the campaign of the Marxists to unseat Jessica Stark is never given much weight or even made credible. A similar lack of substantiality characterizes the two love affairs, though they are granted a sexual explicitness unusual in Gardner’s fiction. Even the Mormon murder-story reads more like a gesture in the direction of suspenseful action than a real concern of the author’s.

What then, besides the total immersion in Mickelsson’s mental and moral plight, does concern Gardner? The answer is Ideas—Ideas of the sort that figure in Philosophy 108 at SUNY (Binghamton). Page after page is devoted to classroom discussion of the following sort:

I don’t mean to dismiss your suggestion too hastily,” Mickelsson said, struggling against inertia…. “It may well be that the universe is filled with ghostly forms waiting to be realized. But if they aren’t yet realized—or, worse, if they should happen never to be realized—it would be necessary for us to figure out in what sense we can claim they exist.”

Quickly, Blassenheim said, wildly improvising,…”I understand your objection, but maybe that’s where, like, consciousness differs from the rest. Maybe it’s wrong to talk about physical objects and eternal forms—the perfect zebra, say…. But maybe with thoughts it’s a whole different business…. Like the number two. It was up there for millions of years before anybody thought of it, right?…”

Well, not really, not exactly,” Mickelsson said…. Should one drift off to Wittgenstein—words as names, words as functions?…

Now Michael Nugent had his hand up…. “Are you saying the ‘eternal verities’ that Faulkner talks about, there aren’t any?”

Mickelsson started to answer, then paused…. “All I meant to be suggesting…is that ‘Plato’s Ideas,’ insofar as we can call them that—“

And on and on. Mickelsson’s philosophical conversations with his friends are equally voluminous, as are his inner musings on the nature of reality. Is there meaning, beyond phenomena? Is the world a cryptogram? All of the big questions are trotted out—and all of the big names: Plato, Aristotle, Luther, Nietzsche (especially Nietzsche), Bergson, Wittgenstein, Heidegger…. The names drop incessantly, finally blurring rather than sharpening the novel’s thematic focus.

My objection, of course, is not to the presence of significant ideas in a novel or to a protagonist who is an academic philosopher; rather, it is the indiscriminate, underdramatized parade of the ideas that makes this reader quail—that, and the verbal self-intoxication of the philosopher-protagonist. (“Rhetoric. It was his joy and salvation…. It was his cynosure in the rift between Well and Erde, the inviolable domain of the mad superman, the L-13 balance between words and things.”) The gist of all the mulling-over seems to be that the old barriers between the rational and the occult are breaking down, that Time can play funny tricks, that there are, in short, more things in this world than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio.

What can I find to praise in Mickelsson’s Ghosts? There are, of course, vigorously written episodes, as one would expect in a book of Gardner’s. I can cite the precision of observation and language which he brings to descriptions of the landscape and the changing seasons, to his lovingly detailed account of Mickelsson’s restoration of the old house, and to the evocation of an economically decayed area and its pathetic or eccentric inhabitants. Little else. Too many sections in this ambitious novel, which is apparently intended as a major statement for our times, read—in their slipshod construction and uncontrolled garrulity—as though they (like the Book of Mormon) might have been revealed by the Angel Moroni.

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