Most everyone's read The Art of Fiction and everyone's read Grendel and most everyone's read On Becoming a Novelist, but John Gardner's superb Mickelsson's Ghosts is not much talked about. When I did my MA we read a transcript of Bill Gass and Gardner arguing their positions on narrative fiction, which I'll viciously paraphrase thusly:
Gardner: Writing of fiction builds a 747 that must obey certain physical laws in order to fly. I like Bill's stuff, and even when he's mean he writes so nice it don't matter. Bill's stuff, though, is so ornamented and the 747 so encrusted with jewels and finery and shiny trinkets it doesn't get off the ground.
Bill Gass: Yeah, but the reader believes it does.
I disappeared inside Mickelsson's Ghosts for a glorious week, made even more glorious if in a very impure way by the the inside scoop from The Art of Fiction on Gardner's manifold and intense struggles to make the book work. As does Gardner, Mickelsson the Nietzsche philosopher cools off from intense writing, thinking and desk-jockeying by making cabinets and tables and other pretty deeply involved woodworking. I'll grant that it doesn't really pan out for Mickelsson in the end, sanity-wise, but for every working writer, something physical and unabstract and at one with the warp and woof of the earth is highly recommended. I painted my sister's entire house while writing my first book. It helps. Both to keep you real and to remind you of what you don't want to do for a living.
So I was turned on to thoughts of Gass by blogging yesterday and then fortuitously this article on the audio version (all forty-five hours) of The Tunnel, brought to my attention by Powells. I had a chillingly expensive import Dalkey Archive copy of the book when Gass came to Wellington for the book festival, which I couldn't afford to attend, having spent all my quidlings on aforesaid, but I was determined to get it signed. I lurked outside to catch him leaving the Embassy (the theater, Peter Jackson-restored and -beloved of and venue for Wellington's book festival), and when he did, with his young and glamorous handler, I ran, like a dirty little fan, ran and ran, and caught him and declaimed, breathlessly: "I've read the first hundred pages and I think it's just the most amazing thing. The most incredible thing."
And Bill Gass said, "Oh you'll get over that." And signed it William H. Gass on that silky Dalkey paper.
"If I understood it well, you will stay in an old farm where my grandmother used to get the milk when she was five. They were 9 brothers and sisters and as the older daughter, she was in charge of filling the bottle of milk at the farm. Saint Suliac is a nice little village. The weather is stormy, pouring. That is my favorite weather when you can enjoy the rain and the crazy sea from your window drinking a little cognac and imaginating how sailors used to go to Terre Neuve for six month in rough condition and brought back hareng and money to feed the kids and get drunk the most they could before leaving."
Books mentioned in this post
Carl Shuker is the author of The Lazy Boys