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October 01, 1982 - Image 15

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The Michigan Daily, 1982-10-01
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A Publication of The Michigan Daily Friday, October 1, 1982

Ghosts
in the
machinle,
By Steve Miller
Mickelsson's Ghosts
John Gardner
Knopf, 690 pages
I N ONE OF Time magazine's more
inexplicable bits of polemics,
essayist Lance Morrow ponders an
earlier critic's question: ".. . whether
there be any living writer whose silence
we would consider a literary disaster." He
rattles off a long list of names, and
provides the answer "no" for all.
Donald Barthelme? Joyce Carol Oates?
Philip Roth? Norman Mailer? No, no,
no, and no again.
John Gardner also appears on the
list, along with the inevitable negative
response about the potential disaster of
his silence. But after September 14, the

question takes on substance, the poten-
tial silence realized. On that day, at the
age of 49, Gardner died in a motorcycle
accident near his home in Susquehan-
na, Penn.
It is too early for a reassessment of
his life's work. Maybe there is no need
for reassessment, anyway, no call to
place Gardner in the pantheon of the
greatest-if Lance Morrow's opinions
are correct.
But in Gardner's final novel,
Mickelsson's Ghosts, some possibly
life-long authorial process culminates.
Always the high-minded critic and oc-
casionally a novelist, Gardner here
strives to fill both functions, playing the
two roles off of each other. The critic is
driven to illuminate the mechanics of
human motivation. He organizes a
novel around general themes, and the
novelist makes the book work,
organizing those themes around
specific events from his own experien-
ces. The autobiographical element
fleshes out background scenery,
breathes life into an important charac-
ter, makes it all seem real.
Gardner himself was a professor at
the State University of New York in
Binghamton, as is the novel's Peter
Mickelsson. Gardner's son is a
photographer, and many of his stark
pictures or rural Pennsylvania appear
throughout the book. Mickelsson's son
also is a photographer, a shadowy
figure heard mostly over the phone or
seen in fleeting flashbacks.

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A dozen or more of these parallels
exist between the novel and reality,
autobiography blending imperceptibly
into fiction, providing a stage on which
Gardner can play out his major
theme-thought vs. action. Combing his
experiences and writing expertise with
the concerns of a critical thinker, he
uses fiction to show how the
philosophical and religious heritage of
the Western world directs humans
through their lives.
Peter Mickelsson, a middle-aged
professor of philosophy actively aiding
his own mental demise, is an excellent
mechanism for exploring Gardner's
tortuous theme, and the author refuses
to leave the job half-finished. He
wrestles with his main character, com-
pletely pulling the man apart, breaking
him down into composite pieces, and
putting him back together again.
It takes a great mass of words to ac-
complish this task, 690 pages worth. But
Gardner has many layers to peel away
from many characters-Donnie, the
beloved prostitute, Tillson, the defor-
med politico heading the philosophy
department, Jessie, the only non-
Marxist in a hostile Sociology depar-
tment-before he can reveal their most
basic motivations.
As the book begins, Mickelsson
realizes the direction his life has been
taking. He has separated from his wife,
but does not possess the resolve to
finally end the marriage. His career as
a famous philosopher lies far behind
him, sufficient for his tenure but.for any
meaningful purposes, petrified and
forgotten. After leaving everything else
with his wife,, he lives in an apartment
that undergrads would not envy and
stumbles through a hazy academic
existence.
Once athletic, a former college foot-
ball hero, Mickelsson feels the ravages
of middle-age steal away his physical
strength. Once precise and analytic, he
is now merely self-aware.
Agonizingly, he watches his mind
travel well-worn paths leading
nowhere. Nietzsche and Martin Luther
provide the signposts for these eloquen-
tly phrased roadways to the madness
they themselves eventually reached.
How can lowly Mickelsson hope to
avoid the same end?
The bare bones of the plot seem to
form an account-of a conventional mid-
life crisis. But the stakes are higher for
a philosopher, if the end result is mad-
ness. With Mickelsson, Gardner rises
above the cliches. He has an original
approach, and the intelligence to han-
dle a multitude of complex ideas while
maintaining control of the pace. Cer-
tainly it is the story of a fairly simple
mid-life crisis, but it becomes a weird
and fantastic ghost story, a murder
mystery, a love story, and a few others,
besides.
When Mickelsson figures out his life
needs a major change, he turns his
sight beyond the walls of the little
college town and looks for a more
cheerful place to live. As if decreed by
Providence, he soon discovers a mar-
velous and decrepit farmhouse for sale
in the Pennsylvania countryside. He en-
ters a new phase in his life, reflected in
the richly metaphorical new home. The
prospects seem pleasing.
Often while he works to restore the
place, he thinks back to his childhood
on a farm much like the new one. He
remembers his father, a man with
willpower, skillful and staunch, not

wasting time stewing over
philosophical trash. He thinks of his
grandfather, an upright Lutheran
minister whose philosophizing led to
faith, rather than the 'verdigrised
darkness of Mickelsson's thoughts.
But the ghosts of his past are far less
threatening than the real ghosts that
show up in his haunted house. Dreams
of a mysterious crime disturb his sleep,
and townspeople drop dim hints about
the brother and sister who lived in the
house before.
Mickelsson's soul becomes in-
creasingly caught up in the house. The
history of the place fascinates him,
rebuilding it obsesses him, and the rest
of his life slips away in a confusion of
dreams and reality.
Piece by piece, Mickelsson's life
decays. His colleagues in the small and
stylized philosophy department, in-
tegral figures when the book begins,
slowly fade out as Mickelsson ignores
his day-to-day problems. His students
are only pale faces in a crowd. They
watch the big-shot professor lead them
with half of his attention through
Aristotle and Plato, or, following his
notecards mechanically, through the
ethics of medicine.
While they practically beg him for a
little understanding, Mickelsson shuts
the office door on them. As the cold
fingers of winter grip the countryside,
he doesn't even bother to go to the
classes. The action becomes internal, to
the point of Mickelsson's insanity; in
his house, the ghosts become corporeal.
Tension reaches a feverish intensity
and, like a fever, Mickelsson must
break before he can be healed.
Handling the vast quantity of themes
and subplots with alacrity, Gardner
foces them all at the end into a single
purpose. Amazingly, he returns
Mickelsson from the edge.
Is Gardner's death a literary
disaster? Who knows. Mickelsson's
Ghosts is good, although not unflawed,
and Gardner pulls out all the literary
stops in a drive toward perfection. At
times it comes out sounding too arty or
too amazing, and one wonders if
Mickelsson just thinks too much for his
own damn good.
But Gardner shores up these flaws
with enough ideas for a dozen books by
lesser writers. It is not a book to be read
over and over, but it holds its own under
careful reading and thought, part of a
great old tradition of literary ghost
stories.

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Old flicks
a fading
memory
By Christopher Potter
T HERE'S A movie I dearly love,
some 40 years ago, called The E
Chicago. Starring Robert Montgomer;
you don't remember him) and Edward ;
(I know you don't remember him), th
concerns a dapper, wise-cracking Cl
gangster (Montgomery) who's start
discover that a distant, departed E
relative has bequeathed him a royal ft
complete with castle and earldom.
Aided by a chiseler lawyer (Arnold
hero vacates the Windy City for Merr
England, where he assumes the trappi
his lordship with all the grace of a bu]
china shop. The slapstick clash of cultu
played with hilarious pseudo-suavity by
tgomery and the others. Comic turns in
are so smooth and slick that, even whe
see FILMS, P

h

662-2626

CD,
Chipf/Italian Ices/

NCr(

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