Academic Vaudeville

The King's Indian: Stories and Tales

by John Gardner, illustrated by Herbert L. Fink
Knopf, 323 pp., $8.95

The Odd Woman

by Gail Godwin
Knopf, 419 pp., $8.95

The Clockwork Testament or Enderby's End

by Anthony Burgess
Knopf, 161 pp., $6.95

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”…

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