Grendel is the first full-length John Gardner novel I’ve read. I’m blown away. Go buy this book and read it now. Gardner gives voice to the Other (here the oldest monster in the English language, Grendel) with a convincing strangeness whose legitimacy brooks no argument. Human-ness is seen in truth from Grendel’s place outside it, but translated into language we can understand by the monster’s narrative and experience. Gardner holds up many of our central modern (and postmodern) philosophical ideas (he draws especially from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, sometimes choosing to frame Grendel as an existential hero) and in the mind of the monster and we see aspects of our thoughts from an until-now unseen angle.
Grendel reads slowly, with prose that seems deceptively effortless, like a high-caliber gymnast performing an especially technical routine. It’s not a long book and passages hold up to re-readings wonderfully as deeper connections are made by the reader. It’s a book I’ll be going back to soon, with plastic-tab flags a highlighter. The pen-and-ink drawings by Emil Antonucci are a wonderful aesthetic complement to the novel itself, each one depicting Grendel’s head in a conglomerations of swirling lines that evoke these ephemeral twisting eddies in a stream whose circuitous path transcends our predictive ability.
Gardner is a direct descendant of American Realists like Henry James -an aesthetic I admire, but don’t particularly enjoy. Gardner preserves the wonderfully crafted prose with all its meticulous revision and re-revision, a literary process of distillation that was carried on by his sometimes-pupil, Raymond Carver. He abandons the turn-of-the-century Realist obsession with social interaction and it’s perfect depiction in favor of (in Grendel, at least) an examination of values. By turning the craft and powers of Realism onto something of greater substance, Gardner does his part to fulfill the potential of Realism, paving the way for so many future authors and setting a damned high bar.
Recommendation: Buy, read, and reread.