Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Learning from the masters series: John Gardner & the world of monster

Door to the inside of a monster
John Gardner's Grendel is a work of delight and derangement cluttered in one diabolical monster's mind.  It is poetry garbed in prose, sophistry hiding behind a misunderstood, disadvantaged descendent of Cain.  Gardner slips his monster into the reader, building sympathy and support as the beast twists its words around unreliable reasoning that makes the reader want to believe Grendel's version and feel sorry for him.  Gardner does all this through the voice of the monster as the creature seems to share all his personal feelings, fears and frustrations.  He's honest, sort of.

" 'Ah, sad one, poor old freak!'  I cry, and hug myself, and laugh, letting out salt tears, he he! till I fall down gasping and sobbing.  (It's mostly fake.)"

This short quote is just a few pages into the book.  It contains, "cry," "laugh," "gasping," "sobbing" and the words in parentheses "It's mostly fake." This sharing of Grendel's view of his behavior draws the reader in, grinning (though of course, Grendel would be grinning too, but it is the reader that thinks this is great fun.  And before readers know it, they are so entertained that they fall for him, crazy rapscallion that he is.)

His honesty is refreshing, diverting, entrancing and completely manipulative.  And the reader knows that, too, but that is not enough to keep him or her secure from falling for the monster, and that is John Gardner's gift.

" 'Dark chasms!' I scream from the cliff-edge, 'seize me!  Seize me to your foul black bowels and crush my bones!'  I am terrified at the sound of my own huge voice in the darkness.  I stand there shaking from head to foot, moved to the deep-sea depths of my being, like a creature thrown into audience with thunder."

Pulled in, right to the brink of believing him and then he says:

"At the same time, I am secretly unfooled. The uproar is only my own shriek, and the chasms are, like all things vast, inanimate.  They will not snatch me in a thousand years, unless, in a lunatic fit of religion, I jump."

And thus Gardner twists us about.  First one way and then another, until we don't know if we trust this Grendel or not, but for some crazy reason, we like him and want to continue to spend time with him.  We ignore his eating of people, his sarcasm, his beastliness.   He's just too interesting, too contradicting.

That is the secret, or at least one of the important ones of this work of creating a monster that more than a mother can love.  Grendel is a contradiction.  He wants to be welcomed into the forgiveness of religion, but overlooks the dead man he has clutched under his arm.  He peers into holes in the mead hall wall to watch the Danes live their small lives, like a lonely voyeur, and eats their cattle, old women and wayward children.

We shake our heads at him, and then devour more words, more rabid philosophy.

I haven't written about any monsters yet, but I am going to keep this technique in mind:  the twist of honesty, sympathy and personal fear around destruction, hate and madness.  A monster one can love and hate to hate, though the reader knows, knows with a certainty, here lies a crazy bastard of a monster; don't turn your back and watch his hands closely, and his claws closer.

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