2013 Challenges, Books

Book 180: Mickelsson’s Ghosts – John Gardner

Gardner, John - Mickelsson's GhostsThis book is definitely a reader’s book, or maybe a writer’s book? I’m never really sure what the difference is, but either way it’s a tome that really pushes you to focus on what you’re reading as there are quite a few heavy philosophical arguments and references within the novel, and it pushes you to question what is and isn’t real with the protagonist acknowledging that he’s had previous stints in a mental institution and the varying ‘ghosts’ to which the title refers.

I bought this book in 2011 at the Boston Book Festival and it’s just sat on my shelf since. I’m glad I read it, but at the same time I’m not sure why I bought it at the time as I’m terrified of ghost stories, but you’ll have to read on to find out how this one affected me. Since it’s been on my shelf for almost two years it counts for my Mount TBR ‘extra’ challenge. It took nearly two weeks to read and that’s from the denseness of the book. seriously, scroll down and read the first line—it’s a PARAGRAPH—or any of the quotes for that matter!

The hardest part of this book, surprisingly, wasn’t all the philosophy. You can pretty much ignore it and the book is still great. I’m sure if I understood the philosophy more the book would have that much more of an impact, but I was never good at philosophy and the book was just fine. For me, the only thing I didn’t like about the book was the protagonist’s helplessness. I felt like he was avoiding taking responsibility for anything and from this arose all of his problems. I have very little patience for this type of person and just kept wanting to slap him in the face and say WAKE UP TO THE REAL WORLD and sort out your shit. But if I did that, then the best part of the novel wouldn’t have existed.

The best part of Mickelsson’s Ghost was the blurring of reality and imaginary and how eloquently Gardner wove this into the book. I think Wikipedia summed it up nicely,

The ghosts of the title refer not just to individuals, but types. Although traditional ghost stories stick to one of three different kinds of ghosts, Gardner uniquely populates this novel with all three: real supernatural entities, “psychological” ghosts that originate in the imaginings of a character, and supernatural seeming occurrences that have natural explanations.

Surprisingly, the ghosts in this novel didn’t freak me out as most do. A lot of this had to do with the matter of fact way the characters talked about the ghosts and witchcraft, but I think more of it had to do with the subtle way Gardner wove them into the story. He didn’t stick them in with a poltergeist type feeling and often times you met a ghost and then it was later revealed they were a ghost and not an actual person or a figment of the protagonist’s overactive imagination.

As I neared the end of the book, I started questioning everything because reality became so blurred that I wasn’t sure what was and wasn’t real. And it made me look back to the beginning of the book and question which characters were real and which weren’t. I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. Some are very clearly dead, some are imaginary, and some I’m still not sure about.

Recommendation: The ending was definitely worth the read, I was floored with a couple of the revelations and was totally wrong on a couple of random assumptions. Honestly, I’m not sure whether to say read it or not. I thought it was fascinating, but it was also a drudge because of how dense the writing and subject matter are.

Opening Line: Sometimes the sordidness of his present existence, not to mention the stifling, clammy heat of the apartment his finances had forced him to take, on the third floor of an ugly old house on Binghamton’s West Side—”the nice part of town,” everybody said (God have mercy on those who had to live in the bad parts)—made Peter Mickelsson clench his square yellow teeth in anger and once, in a moment of rage and frustration greater than usual, bring down the heel of his fist on the heavy old Goodwill oak table where his typewriter, papers, and books were laid out, or rather strewn.”

Closing Line: “Now the bedroom was packed tight with ghosts, not just people but also animals—minks, lynxes, foxes—more than Mickelsson or Jessie could name, and there were still more at the windows, oblivious to the tumbling, roaring bones and blood, the rumbling at the door, though some had their arms or paws over their heads—both people and animals, an occasional bird, still more beyond, some of them laughing, some looking away (Mormons, Presbyterians), some blowing their noses and brushing away tears, some of them clasping their hands or paws and softly mewing shadowy cats, golden-eyed tigers (Marxist atheists, mournful Catholics)…pitiful, empty-headed nothings complaining to be born…” (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from Mickelsson’s Ghosts
“The room was empty—more than empty, he thought: drawn back from him like a cowering beast; it seemed if he moved nearer it would strike. Some thought trembled at the edge of his consciousness, some familiar idea turned at a strange new angle; but try as he might, straining his attention like a man trying to read a clue in charades, he couldn’t quite spring it.” (120)

“Mickelsson imagined the handsome young man he’d seen in the photograph at Jessica’s, smiling with his lips closed to hide the crooked teeth—the charming, universally admired Buzzy Stark—seated in the faculty cafeteria with immense, short back-suited Lawler, a man so shy, or so filled with distrust, one could hardly tell which that he never ventured out without a book between himself and the world, some heavy old tome from which he never for an instant glanced up, even when, in one language or another, he said hello. There was something childlike, even weird, about Lawler’s parading of languages, a sort of boyish showing off. But that was part of the beauty of the man, that unworldliness, innocence like an angel’s.” (311)

“‘…Protestations of love are always about seventy per cent wild hope.’ He waved at the wall dramatically showing his scorn of merely hopeful protestations. ‘Like a caster of spells, one proclaims as actuality what one wishes and, on the basis of present evidence, believes might eventually become actuality. I, however—unreasonably, querulously, foolish Platonist to the depth—I insist on a perfect exchange of love that cannot be until it is.” (342)

“It was curious that a man could go mad and watch the whole process like a scientist. When it reached its extreme and, as he’d done before, he dressed himself up in outrageous attire and committed some oddity, talking to dead animals in the middle of a street, and he was dragged to some hospital and brought to his senses again, would the whole experience be flown from his head? How could thoughts so lucid fall out of reality entirely, like the popular songs and dance-steps of ancient Rome?” (479-80)


7 thoughts on “Book 180: Mickelsson’s Ghosts – John Gardner”

    1. Yeah. I’m sure someone somewhere has done a great post about the difference. It’s always difficult for me to decide because you have to be a great reader (in general) to be a great writer. But there are exceptions, I’m sure.


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