WHEN John Gardner died in a motorcycle accident in 1982, he left behind him these two unfinished novels which his friend the novelist Nicholas Delbanco has edited and published under a single cover. According to Delbanco, Gardner handed him the manuscript for Stillness in 1975 and said he had no intention of pursuing it further. Some 800 pages of Shadows, much of it fragmented stops and starts, was found among his papers after his death; shortly before that, Gardner reportedly had told his fiancee that he had "figured out how to fix" it.
Recently, with The Garden of Eden, we've had more posthumous Hemingway, and much has been written about the ethics of publishing it and of editing it, and about whether it is valuable as a literary work on its own terms or only because it was written by Hemingway. Posthumous publication inevitably raises such questions. As Delbanco notes in his introduction, "though an author cannot necessarily have everything he wishes published, the reverse is the general case: what he does not choose to publish is his choice." In making the decision to publish the two works, however, Delbanco contends that the biographical and bibliographical considerations and the lessons regarding authorial intention and the process of revision outweigh any prohibitions against it. It is an arguable point, perhaps, but not without its merits, and the reader of Stillness and Shadows will, I expect, be inclined to agree with him.
In the case of Stillness at least, Delbanco also believes that the novel "is important for more than biographical or bibliographical reasons," for "the passionate intensity of its central agon, the power of its language and unwinking inward glare." It is in many ways an amazing book -- brave, relentlessly self-aware, heartbreakingly painful in its insights. One can hardly escape knowing how rawly autobiographical Stillness is; even if Delbanco's introduction did not make its personal nature clear, the intensity and felt life of the prose would suggest the author's closeness to his material.
Stillness was, Delbanco says, written in haste with the intention of returning to it and filling it out: "the 'stillness' at the novel's center would connect to problems of particle physics, to tornadoes in the Ozarks, to Japanese theater -- the Sarugakah No Noh." The reader can, I think, be grateful that that was not done, for the power of the novel resides in its immediacy, that it was in part undertaken as a kind ot "therapy," an exercise in which Gardner and his first wife, Joan, recalled the events and emotions of their life together. As such, it would not benefit from those philosophical constructs which Gardner the fabulist often seemed to impose on his work. That my favorites of Gardner's works of fiction have always been the short stories collected in The Art of Living, particularly "Stillness" and "Redemption," stories culled from the manuscript of Stillness, is in part a matter of taste, but it is a preference that springs from a belief that the truest, most moral fiction, to use Gardner's own phrase, is that which illuminates the social world, our relationships with one another, rather than that which seeks to illustrate philosophical principles or the life of the mind. PRESUMABLY Gardner chose to abandon Stillness because it was too personal, too revealing of his own life. The novel tells the story of Martin Orrick, famous novelist and professor of medieval literature, and of his tempestuous marriage to his red-haired cousin Joan. Like Gardner, Orrick is small and gnome-like, going to fat, his thinning silver blond hair trailing in strange wisps over his shoulders: he is also by his wife's definition "crazy" (and one has to agree), growing more difficult and self-destructive every day, furious at the conventional world, "the world Martin Orrick would howl at with all the volcanic rage of his convulsive, misanthropic soul (much to his profit, ironically, so that the rage would grow more fierce, more unjust and cruel, the prose more eccentric and bizarre)." Orrick is contemptuous of everyone, not the least of whom is his flamboyant, bitter, gifted wife, existing in a pill-induced fog in order to bear a painful and mysterious physical condition. These are not likeable people and yet their story is utterly compelling, saved by humor, intelligence and a rare sweetness which reveal them to be supremely human, trapped since childhood by their own personalities in a fated, passionate love and hate. Stillness is remarkable in that it seems to look at its characters with equal measures of those emotions and yet in the end opts for the former, reminding us to forgive each other and ourselves, because, as Orrick writes, "Life is fleeting, even the worst of life is fleeting."
Shadows is of a different order and I think its interest is primarily bibliographical. It was Delbanco's difficult job to bring order to the chaos of the manuscript, no pages of which had dates, some of which were handwritten and some of which were in part repetitious, although Book One, approximately the first 100 pages seems to have been written consecutively. In Book Two the narrative loops, only to be followed by seven fragments which in some way extend or amplify the narrative. Thousands of words have been cut, and it is impossible to know what Gardner would have eventually made of it or just how he planned to "fix" it. Shadows was, however, envisioned as an ambitious project, and the novel it most resembles is The Sunlight Dialogues, with which it shares many strategies and themes.
It is the story of an alcoholic, paranoid detective named Gerald Craine, just recovering from colon cancer. Craine is on a quest for a mass murderer (who just might be himself) and he may or may not be being followed. Its concerns are in part the familiar Gardner ones of quest, of identity, of who we are and what we can know, and along the way the reader is treated to complex lectures on such subjects as computers, physics, and cancer. I say "treated," although the novel is often slow-going indeed; its pleasures are primarily those of watching Gardner's brilliant mind at work and of marveling at how he manages to make Craine a sympathetic character in spite of everything. My reservations about Shadows, though, are almost the exact opposite of what led me to praise Stillness, the work for which I think this book will be remembered.
After John Gardner died, his friends expressed sorrow but little surprise. They might have said of him as he wrote, prophetically, of Martin Orrick drunkenly galloping his black stallion through the night, "He came, one who knew him at the time might have thought, in search of not life but a death worth dying, a death not wan and casual, unfelt." The tragedy of his death is redeemed, if such a thing is possible, by his art: in the words of Martin Orrick, "Process is all I care about. Therefore I write fiction, to make the beauty of change everlasting, unalterable as rock."
Susan Wood is a poet who teaches at Rice University. Her new book of poems, "White Lies," will be published next year.