Jim Elkins's Reviews > Mickelsson's Ghosts

Mickelsson's Ghosts by John Gardner
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it was ok
bookshelves: american

This book is a long novel with just a few illustrations; I read it as part of my project to read fiction with captionless illustrations. Two notes: one on the photographs, and the other on the novel itself.

(I bought the original hardcover, because the print in the pb is very small, and the illustrations seemed to be cropped. The cloth first edition is worth the price.)

1. Concerning the photographs.
Gardner isn't particularly interesting or reflective about his use of photographs. All are full page or double-page spreads, printed beyond the text margins but not quite to the trim edge.

The first is placed opposite p. 22. At that point in the narrative, the main character has just discovered a rural home he wants to buy. It's described for the first time on p. 21, and when the reader turns the page, she sees the photo, which is, unaccountably, a triple exposure of a decaying wood wall, rocks, and ferns. The photo doesn't correspond with anything in the description, and its late 1970s black and white art technique doesn't fit the nostalgic descriptions of rural northwest Pennsylvania. Apparently it did not concern Gardner that (1) the image is largely illegible, (2) it doesn't fit the description, and (3) it has a style that is at odds with his narrative.

The second image is a double spread of farm buildings in the winter. This one could easily be of the northeastern US, and so it fits the region Gardner is describing, and it comes just after the book's first invocation of snow. (The main character wonders how he will get through his first winter in his new house.) But the photograph is a specific farm, with a house and four small farm buildings; the house doesn't correspond with the house the character has bought, and the land is entirely different from the hilly place, with a waterfall, described in the book. Apparently it did not concern Gardner that (1) this farm is wholly different from the one he has been describing, or (2) the brief mention of snow in the narrative is at odds with the very specific and detailed scene of snow in the photograph.

The third image faces p. 164; it shows parts of six windows in a brick building, from the outside. Each window has some reflections and some have hints of things inside. This fits the narrative much better than the previous photographs, because the narrator has just been thinking of spying on the prostitute he's been seeing. As the story develops, he peers into someone else's apartment, so the photograph invites the same kind of looking that the narrative describes. But apparently it did not concern Gardner that (1) the relation between text and image here is so close, while the other photographs are much more distant, or (2) that readers, encouraged by this closeness, might return to the previous images in search of more information, which they wouldn't find.

2. Concerning the narrative.
I stopped reading carefully after p. 259, for a number of reasons. At that point I could see the structure of the book: the professor, Mickelsson, is depressive, and has had serious mental health issues in the past; he has bought a house in an isolated Pennsylvania town, and he is setting up his life there. The idea is to plot the disintegration of his mind through what's called "subjective third person narration" -- that is, we see the world almost exclusively through Mickelsson's eyes, so his confusions become ours. A number of reviewers online have written well about the novel's project.

For me the ingredients of his dissolution are dramatic clichés. They include:

(a) A "Blue Angel" style descent from famous professor to clownish figure. Degradation and embarrassment await the character in many forms, both in the university and in his adopted town.

(b) A staged drama, which is apparently supposed to provide tension, about his finances: he's bankrupt, and he is lying to the I.R.S..

(c) A repeated device in which we hear about his philosophy seminars in enough detail so that we can follow the philosophic issues involved in his increasing idiosyncrasy and solipsism. These come across, to me, as awkwardly pedagogic.

(d) A repeated device in which the book threatens to become an "actual" ghost story. Clearly, Gardner is only toying with this possibility, because he intends to blend real and invented ghosts. It's telling that by page 180, the narrator still hasn't asked any of the people in his newly adopted town why, exactly, they think his house is haunted. The delay is supposed to create some tension, but Mickelsson's unaccountable lack of interest in details is obviously Gardner's unaccountable belief that readers will continue to think this might be a ghost story, even after 180 pages.

In short: the ingredients for a story about mental disintegration are themselves too conventional, even if the final disintegration might be more radical.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 1, 2013 – Shelved
June 1, 2013 – Shelved as: american
June 1, 2013 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Joshua (new)

Joshua Hi Jim, I enjoy reading your reviews. Do you have any plans to read anything by W.G. Sebald as part of your project to read fiction with captionless illustrations? Several of his works would certainly seem to fit the parameters of your project and are definitely worth reading. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Sebald’s use of photography in The Emigrants or Austerlitz.


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