Becker garnered and distilled insights from the novels of Tolstoy, Kafka, Dostoyevsky and from the film The Pawnbroker, yet there is a near total absence of probing narrative art by notable authors and directors who acknowledge Becker’s influence. If our culture is to be fully leavened with Becker’s ideas, we need novels, plays, and film scripts that will move audiences to relate to those ideas viscerally and with intellectual depth by means that are virtually exclusive to narrative art, such as characterization, narrative arc, emotional evocation, and aesthetic resonance.
Recently, while reading John C. Gardner’s posthumous novel, Stillness and Shadows, I encountered passages containing ideas that Becker had expressed in hauntingly similar language: ideas fully clothed in the five (and more) senses, and spoken by and embodied in characters engaged in struggles that implied rippling circles of significance. On the acknowledgements page of Shadows is a list of books Gardner borrowed from directly by having his characters speak close paraphrases of significant passages. Foremost in this short list was Becker’s Denial of Death.
Gardner meant Shadows to be his magnum opus with Denial of Death as its philosophical cornerstone. His former student, novelist and scholar Nicholas Deblanco, compiled the posthumous version, which is a sizable down payment on a great novel, but thankfully art, unlike nature, does not shrug at an incomplete creation. The protagonist of Shadows is a detective who is ravaged by colon cancer, dazed by drink, and on the verge of Dantean mid-life despair. He switches on what he calls his “denial-of-death machine” by playing the role of hero to a neurotic college girl who is facing real or imagined danger. His hero project—although one that he can see right through--makes life meaningful again.
In a joke business card, Gardner spoofed his being a Medievalist, Novelist, Banjoist, and Lyric and Epic Poet. He was all that and arguably the most controversial American fiction writer in the decade spanning the mid-70s through the mid-80s. He is best remembered for his ideas about the value and nature of fiction, as well for his books about the nuts and bolts and blood of writing. He extracted the essence of effective narration: its ability to induce “a vivid continuous dream,” a phrase now integral to how we think about fiction and film. In On Becoming a Novelist Gardner wrote of the writer’s faith in “a character or scene entering the world by its own strange power, so that the writer feels not the creator but the instrument, or conjurer, the priest who stumbled onto the magic spell—it is this experience of tapping some magic source that makes the writer an addict… if he fails he is a miserable human being.”
Gardner wrote in virtually every literary form, bent and blended many, and invented a few. His long, architectonic novels reveal Dickensian ambitions. Drawn on a smaller canvas, his most acclaimed novel, Grendel, retells the Beowulf saga. Grendel exposes the emptiness and error of Sarte’s existentialism and the elaborate metafictions sans significance of John Barth, while it affirms the value of Gardner’s doubt-riddled, Christian worldview. Grendel asks the central question facing those beyond the protective veil of any unquestioned faith: “If the world really is meaningless (as it now stands) how should I live?”
John Gardner’s criticism of the then LIT pick--the Updikes, Nabokovs, and Vonneguts--was uncompromisingly pugilistic and attracted media coverage befitting a champ who had scored the winning knockout by brazenly wearing brass knuckles. Time and the New Yorker ran stories about Gardner, and his strong jaw and shoulder length hair--both otherworldly white –stared out from the cover of the New York Times Magazine and from the set of The Dick Cavett Show. The epicenter of this hubbub was Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, a manifesto for a return to traditional literary standards—John Gardner’s standards. Seattle’s philosophical novelist Charles Johnson, winner of the National Book Award and once mentored by Gardner, explained in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, that by moral fiction, Gardner had meant responsible fiction. Moral fiction is serious in its intent, implicitly philosophical, and renders the imagined experience and perspective of the other in the most vivid, all-inclusive, and unadulterated way that is humanly possible.
At age 12, John drove a massive tractor over his younger brother, crushing him. As an adult, he recalled (probably a revision) having made a split-second decision not to stomp on the brake, insuring that the accident would be brutal and bloody but mercifully lethal. Little wonder that Becker (and Martin Luther) clicked for a man haunted by such a lesson from life. Gardner died in 1982 at age 49 in a motorcycle spinout, his wedding to a second wife only four days away. Gardner rode his Harley precisely the way he wrote fiction--full throttle, conceivably fleeing from and chasing after ghosts, ever endeavoring to crash through the advancing finish line.
Celebrated authors who studied with Gardner include Raymond Carver, Nicholas Delbanco, and Charles Johnson.
Henry Richards is a forensic psychologist. His Silhouette of Virtue, a philosophical mystery novel inspired by Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, is soon to appear in bookstores, Amazon Kindle, and B&N Nook. See his many blog posts on thedenialfile.wordpress.com