Rim walkers and watchdogs : the metaphysical dialectics of John Gardner's fiction



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John Gardner writes a fiction of ideas. The expression of metaphysical problems and the exploration of possible solutions dominate the thoughts of the characters and influence their decisions about action. Philosophical questions form the structure of the fiction since Gardner organizes his novels around a dialectical opposition of ontological, epistemological, and ethical stances. The characters tend to experience reality either as ordinary or as extraordinary; they know what is real either by categorization or by immediate intuition; and they act according to either an ethic which is based on the established cultural cannon of values or an ethic which is based on the immediate perception of a particular situation. Rim walkers and watchdogs represent these opposing philosophical stances. The rim walker of the fictions sees himself trapped in a universe beyond understanding, filled with mystery, in which "there are no stable principles." He advocates absolute freedom and action according to the intuitive grasp of what the universe demands at any moment. Watchdogs believe there is a stable system by which reality operates. They uphold the old value structures against time's constant decay and the anarchical, mysterious forces of existence. Since metaphysics takes cognizance of what might be called the deep structure of reality, fiction which presents characters emotionally as well as intellectually grappling with their experiences in terms of their perception of reality demands that the author go beyond an ordinary rendering of experience. Gardner draws on the tradition of the romance and on a special system of imagery to lift his fiction to the level of the extraordinary in order to suggest truths ordinarily out of reach.