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Grendel, by John Gardner, reviewed by C.J. Burch More Images
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Grendel, by John Gardner, reviewed by C.J. Burch

Ookay, just for all of you who are so far removed from College English Lit Class that you can’t remember what the hell it was you were supposed to have learned, much less the important stuff like the cleavage on the babe three rows over who wore those tight sweaters, I’m going to take a look at “Grendel” by John Gardner. “But, CJ,” you whine so hard you give me a grating rusty-edged headache, “That’s not a fantasy novel.” Au contraire, mon frere, the Book is about Grendel. You remember him; big, monstrous, inhumanly strong, hairy, evil cuss. Liked to dine upon the entrails of Thanes who had sworn themselves to a king named Hrothgar. One of the first fantasy baddies in English literature, a classic heavy, if you will. Well, Gardner a while back decided it would be great fun to write a novel about Beowulf, that’s the name of the story Grendel was featured in a thousand years or so ago. Except instead of telling the story from Beowulf’s perspective, Beowulf was the hero of the story, he decided he would tell the story thru Grendel’s eyes. To show you how deep I am, I figure that’s why he named the novel, “Grendel.”

Anyway, he wrote this little fantasy piece and in it he detailed Grendel’s character, his strange relationship with his mother, his love-hate relationship with mankind, his perversity, his war with King Hrothgar and his death at the hands of Beowulf and his fellow Geats. Long story short, the book became an instant classic and the darling of English Literature teachers the country over. Who would have guessed? So, having been filled in on the plot and history of this little book you’re wondering to your self, “Now that my trusted reviewer has read this thing. What does he say?” Does he say the same thing the New York Times said, “An extraordinary achievement…” Does he say what Newsweek said, “A marvelous novel—absolutely marvelous: witty, intelligent, delightful…” Does he say what the Christian Science Monitor said, “It deserves to be on the same shelf as Lord of the Flies, Cat’s Cradle and Catcher in the Rye.” Does he? Well, no, no he doesn’t. What your trusted reviewer says is, “Let’s not get carried away.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad. I kind of enjoyed it, but that doesn’t mean it’s as good as Henry V and Macbeth all rolled into one, either.

Gardner was, sadly he died in a motorcycle accident in 1982 at the age of forty nine, a damn fine writer who had an uncanny feel for human foibles and the unblinking courage to point them out in the most graphic ways. He managed to make Grendel himself, traditionally a monster of limitless almost unreasoning rage into a sympathetic, sometimes pathetic character. What’s more, Grendel, for students of the Godawful mess that human nature most often is, is filled with undeniable illustrative gems. Take for example Grendel’s discussion with the terrible, vicious, all seeing, all knowing dragon. It points out that man has “No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spider webs.” Then it warms to its subject and explains that all life and all existence is merely an accident caused by the collision of so much dust in the stream of time. It explains that all Gods man worships and the laws and rules and taboos mankind lives by are merely lies he has constructed to allow himself to survive in a universe that could care less about him, or for that matter, about anything. Finally, before it chases Grendel away, the dragon says that all things; men, worlds, universes are finite and will undoubtedly end. That is powerful stuff.

When Gardner turns his keen eye towards government he is no less incisive, “Public force is the life and soul of every state; not merely army and police but prisons, judges, tax collectors, every conceivable trick of coercive repression. The state is an organization of violence, a monopoly in what it is pleased to call legitimate violence.” Likewise, his observations on love, war, religion, the Priesthood and civilization are just as sharp, just as pungent, and just as unarguably true as his characterizations of man and government and the universe. Why, then, can’t I call this book a classic? Because it is not a book. It’s a soap box. There’s no real story here. What Grendel does or does not do has nothing to do with the flow of the action or even the ending. This whole book, all one hundred seventy four pages of it, is merely an epistle, a letter to the reader stating Gardener’s thoughts upon the condition of the universe and man’s place in it. And even at that, it’s not entirely clear what the hell he’s talking about half the time. The novel is written in a mumbling stream of consciousness style that makes its subject nearly so difficult to fathom as to be beyond the ken of mortal man. As often as he makes brilliant points, Gardner obfuscates, hides and twists the story so that it becomes opaque. The narrative slides from first person to third person and then into poetry without any explanation or reason and the motives of the characters are only partially understood, and never fully explained. It is the type of work that should one hundred people read it they would draw one hundred different interpretations of its meaning, despite the fact that Gardner, I think, meant to illuminate one very clear doctrine, even if that doctrine was something as elemental as everything is an accident and nothing matters at all. That failure to be clear in a book that, by all rights, should have been hopelessly pedantic, is a problem.

“Gosh CJ, that’s no real criticism,” you reply. “In real life the works and emotions of people are often not understood even by themselves.” True enough, but the first and foremost rule that every writer whether he or she pens fiction or nonfiction must follow has always been and will always be, simply…be clear. It is the work of the writer to help the reader understand that which he has not thought about before…to see things he has not considered before…to know truths that had never occurred to him…or, sometimes, just to show the reader a good time. It is the writer’s job and art to say exactly that which he intended to say. Leaving sentences and thoughts and paragraphs dangling and open to myriad interpretations is merely creating noise, nothing more. Especially when the story you have chosen to tell is a cloak you have used to hide your beliefs. There is a reason, gentle reader, that stream of consciousness novels sometimes seem to be nothing more than disorganized, poorly planned messes, and it is the same reason that abstract art looks like a series of blotches and squiggles on a canvas. It is because that is what they both, in fact, are. That said, there are some pieces of abstract art I like very much, just as there are passages in this book I like very much, but that doesn’t mean I can wholeheartedly recommend either of them. It just means I enjoy them myself. —C.J. Burch for SiriusReviews.com.

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