This afternoon, I start Grendel, John Gardner’s 1971 novel telling the story of Beowulf’s first great opponent from the monster’s point of view. The version I’ve got is identical to the one I read in Modern Literature my junior year in high school, where Ms. Martin, her hair in a severe bun but her eyes twinkling with delight, introduced us to post-modernism, existentialism, and the absurd. It’s one of the only mass-market paperbacks I’ve ever seen issued by Vintage, the venerable publisher of trade (large-format) paperbacks, and though its cover is so very 1980s, the interior features Emil Antonucci’s evocative 1971 drawings of the monster: in repose, bellowing in agony, brooding about the cruel hand fate has dealt him.
The book, to me at 16, was an impossibly complex tapestry, a dense web of words so threaded through with allegory, allusion, symbolism, and emotion that I could only take it in by sort of unfocusing my brain and letting the whole blur enter me at once. Rereading it now, I find I remember almost nothing of the actual story but that Gardner’s rhythms are encoded in my hippocampus: the mix of heightened rhetoric and earthy howl, the Old English diction and the groovy ’70s touches, the soliloquys interrupted by little soft-shoe routines, Grendel the earth-rim-roamer dancing on the world’s weird wall. This novel meant everything to me in high school, even if its actual meanings escaped me. Sure, I listened to Ms. Martin as she read sections from Beowulf as preparation; I heard her enumerate the zodiac references in the book’s 12 chapters and point out the mantras that repeat over and over through Grendel’s tale. I grokked some of that, and understood that there was a lot going on under this book’s hood. But my immediate comprehension of the book was as a tragic tale of a misunderstood beast who just wants to be part of the human world—“ridiculous hairy creature,” Grendel calls himself, “torn apart by poetry.” At 16, I could relate.
It turns out John Gardner wasn’t afraid to correct students who didn’t quite understand his work, but he was dead by the time we read the book, so I didn’t have to worry. He’s a writer who’s fallen mostly out of favor—Dwight Garner, on the 25th anniversary of Gardner’s death, admitted he’d never read a word of his fiction, because “he’s always seemed, rightly or wrongly, someone I could safely skip.” But for a brief period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gardner was enmeshed in a war over the fate of the novel, conducted via his essay collection On Moral Fiction but also through his bold pronouncements about what every novelist who wasn’t him was doing wrong. (Not considering the moral ramifications of his fiction, or insufficiently caring about his characters, mostly.) In a 1979 New York Times Magazine cover story, Gardner let loose on John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, and The New Yorker’s fiction section in the space of five paragraphs. (Tolstoy was good, Gardner allows.) The story is pretty remarkable to a modern reader not only in Gardner’s sharp criticisms but in the sharper retorts his targets delivered. “Gardner is a pretentious young man, talks a lot and has little of intelligence to say,” Heller said. “We’ll meet in heaven,” said Mailer.
This mass-market paperback, published just a few years after Gardner’s final, posthumous book The Art of Fiction, was not built to appeal to an audience of adult readers who had heard about this firebrand who was shaking up the world of modern fiction, the one who crashed his motorcycle on a country road and was waiting for Mailer in heaven. It was packaged and priced ($3.95) to appeal to teens and early twentysomethings who were looking for a book that might blow their minds. (A back-cover blurb from the Christian Science Monitor compares it to Lord of the Flies, Cat’s Cradle, and The Catcher in the Rye—the kind of audience targeting publishers dream about.) It certainly worked for me—it was the book that got me interested in fiction that didn’t feature Dirk Pitt, Jack Ryan, or centaurs, fiction where the writing mattered as much as the story, where the feelings derived from reading were more complicated than the simple desire to know what happened next. When I finished it in 1991, I didn’t toss it aside. I turned back to Page 1 and started it again.
Today on the beach, I finish Grendel as it’s time pack it up for the night. Reading it while distracted by children and seagulls and the heat was a somewhat analogous experience to reading it at 16, though back then I was distracted by hormones and girls and my own misery. At 16, it pierced through to my heart. This time I spent most of my reading thinking not about the book but about myself in those years, ready to have my mind blown. I’m glad it was Grendel who did it.
From here on out at the beach, I’m reading books I’ve never read before. And I’d better step it up; I’ve only trimmed 100 pages from my daughter’s lead.