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06 June 2006 @ 01:03 pm
sleep on the floor and dream about me  
A few days ago I decided to reread John Gardner's Nickel Mountain. I took it to work to read on my lunch breaks and found, between the pages, a receipt from my grocery store, from a lunch break back in November. I inserted my most recent receipt, wondering with pleasure how long it would be before my next reread.

I finished the book today, but didn't close the covers. Nickel Mountain casts a deeper spell over me every time I read it, and this time I wanted badly to hold that feeling, to connect the beginning to the end and understand the book in its entirety. I flipped back to the first page and started reading again.

I've been obsessed with John Gardner for five or six years, since discovering a few of his novels in a pile of cast-off books at my old co-op. Weirdly, I don't really like much of Gardner's writing. He was too serious about it, too committed to being an artist and not committed enough to just being a person. John Gardner was a big name writer in the 1970's, author of bestsellers like The Sunlight Dialogues and Grendel. He was a contemporary of John Updike, a former teacher of Raymond Carver, and an outspoken critic of just about everyone. He believed that all great art was moral, contributing to the human condition rather than merely taking it apart. Books that were only critical of its characters and never hopeful (like, Gardner said, the novels of Saul Bellow) were immoral, as were books of aesthetic quality alone. He hated metafiction for that reason. Gardner's modern equivalents are Jonathan Franzen and Dale Peck.

Gardner died in a motorcycle accident in 1982. Since then almost all of his books have fallen out of print, and he's been largely forgotten. He was so sure of his place in the literary canon, positive that books like The Sunlight Dialogues and October Light would endure long after Updike's Rabbit, Run or Bellow's Herzog. I've read everything of Gardner's I can get my hands on, and I know why no one reads him anymore. His books, for all their moral ambition, tend to lack relevance. They feel a little dusty. They feel like they were written by someone out of touch with his own time, out of touch with the lives of the people around him. They were written by an artist trying to make a point, rather than a human trying to speak to other humans.

Nickel Mountain manages to escape the intellectual pall that falls over most of Gardner's other writing.  It began as a short story, written while Gardner was still in college. Although it wasn't published until after Gardner was an established literary presence, it's really his first novel. He expanded it slowly, writing and rewriting as he wrote and published his other novels. When it was finally published in 1973, it was a novel more than twenty years in the making. Possibly because it took so long to write, or because it came from a less ambitious, less successful, more hopeful place in his life, Nickel Mountain is easily the most human of all Gardner's novels.

It breaks my heart every time I read it.

More than anything, Nickel Mountain is about being human. It's about being lonely, about trying to live by your convictions even when it's pointless, about how hard it is to remember the things you think are important to you. It's about how accidental and inevitable so much of our lives are. And how beautiful living is, for all its disappointments and failures.

I have a lot to say about Nickel Mountain, but I dawdled away my morning, thinking about this book. My assessment of what the book is "about" is pretty pitiful, and captures nothing.

I'll read some more on my lunch break, and I'll be sure to save my receipt.
 
 
 
Hepcat: wes book taerowynnwhepcat on March 21st, 2010 04:02 am (UTC)
This was a fascinating post. And it also reminds me that my original intent for my LJ was completely different from what it became. (It was going to be the place where I went on at length about the latest song that seized my brain and made me play it 20 or more times in a row. Never did that once, at least until way past the beginning of the fanfic, and only in passing.)

This is the place where I hang out and act like myself. Facebook is where I behave myself and edit myself.
nickelmountainnickelmountain on March 21st, 2010 04:23 am (UTC)
I'm glad you liked this. This post was one of several failed attempts at keeping a blog, and the only one I didn't delete. I'm glad I kept it.

I keep a Facebook account, too, and rarely post anything to it. I like the way you put that - I'm always very careful on Facebook, due to the number of coworkers and in-laws who have friended me. I definitely have to behave myself. I like the idea of LJ as a place to be yourself.