RELEVANCE should be administered in small doses, especially in historical novels. It's not that I mind relevance, it's just that it can be pretty depressing to discover that people in the olden days are supposed to have had those same old problems which had no solution then and have no solution now. The chief virtue of The Wreckage of Agathon is that it avoids the obvious temptations of easy relevance in favor of a more complex view of the nature of good and evil. John Gardner attempts great things in his novel, but succeeds only in creating a small, funny metaphysical novel that doesn't quite suffice for the problems it raises.
Ancient Sparta is under the rule of the demonic tyrant Lykourgos. He has made Sparta a brilliant military state, but it has become flabby with prosperity. The Helots, an oppressed race used as slave labor by the Spartans, have started an uprising against their masters. Sound familiar so far? That's about as far as contemporary parallels go. Lykourgos has forced the complete redistribution of wealth in Sparta, and set up communal dining halls where everyone regardless of rank eats the same food. He has established a successful communist state.
Agathon, once an adviser to Lykourgos, has now been thrown into prison, officially for complicity in the Helot rebellion but actually because he represents a different, more serious threat to Lykourgos's rule. A leering, over-weight, foul-minded old mystic, constantly eating onions, farting, and peeking in windows to watch elderly couples making love. Agathon scorns the Spartan ideal and gleefully embodies its antithesis. The novel deals with how he got this way and how he views himself, the people he knows, the universe he inhabits. Gardner adroitly uses the device of alternating two manuscripts: Agathon's disjointed writings in jail, and those of his cellmate and disciple Demodokos (whom he insists on calling Peeker), a callow youth who manages to be devoted to Agathon despite being disgusted and enraged by his antics.
The weakest parts of the novel are Agathon's reminiscences about his past before he became a seer. He tells us of his marriage to Tuka, the beautiful daughter of an Athenian nobleman at whose home he was tutored, of his involvement with the gross but practical Solon, of his fascination with the Helot Iona, who later becomes a leader of the rebellion. Interesting enough, but all this smacks of soap opera, and at any rate the young Agathon seems pale in comparison to what he becomes.
After Iona's husband is executed for treason, having shielded his wife's involvement in the rebellion, Agathon goes to seed. It is then that he starts compulsively laughing at the universe and having visions of the future:
It was like some kind of addiction. I couldn't help myself: I would see some new absurdity-now from the Spartans, now from the Helots-and an impression would come, and the clowning despair would rush over me, the total indifference to anything but the monstrous foolishness of human beings, and in a flash-or a giggle-I was at them. As my idiocy became familiar, it became safe. Children began to mock my eccentricities, or follow after me, mimicking my hobble. At last I had taught them something.
AGATHON becomes the negation not just of Lykourgos but of everything, including himself. He insists that it is winter while they are in prison, though Peeker knows it is summer. He tells Iona, after she has helped him escape (against his will):
"I'm the absolute idea of NO. No, I will not come and help you murder Spartans, and with me or without me you'll fail, die in blood, as even the Spartans will eventually fail, and as we all will die, eventually, become dinner for worms. But I will die with a certain worthless dignity: I did not simplify."
"Pompous, pompous, pompous!" she screeched. "You'd mock it in anyone else."
"I AM pompous. It's true. O miserable, miserable beast! I HATE myself!" I stamped my foot.
After he's rescued, Agathon dies of the plague, contracted from the rats in his cell. He has managed, though, to communicate his philosophy (or lack of one) to Demodokos, and in that there is hope. We identify with Agathon, not because he is a fashionable anti-hero, but because he approaches life with such zest that his enthusiasm is contagious. He cannot contain himself when he sees an old lady taking a shit in the woods, and has to come up behind her and whisper, "God bless you!" His reaction to death is "Whooee am I scared!" He tries to think of some last, solemn, sententious word, and comes up with "Cocklebur. Ox."
Gardner sees more in Agathon than just a chaotic life force. The word Agathon means "the good." Despite Agathon's death the wreckage of the good is not complete. Agathon believes he has failed to make the stone-eared universe listen to his ravings, but he has passed his message on to one important person-Demodokos, "teacher of the people."
GARDNER strives to be cosmic, rather than merely relevant, and though he fails, he fails in a good cause. His style is excellent, occasionally lyrical, often funny. The difference between the prose of Agathon and Demodokos, and thus between their characters, is skillfully handled. The characterization of Agathon is a bit too broad and obviously symbolic to be completely successful, however, and it is on this character that the book stands or falls.
It takes more than an intelligent novelist to bring off what Gardner has attempted. That "good" exists in filth and inspired lunacy is a common enough idea; Agathon is a good personification of it. To prove that good can rise from its wreckage and triumph requires a breadth of vision and a moral force The Wreckage of Agathon lacks.