A Non-Review by J. Stefan-Cole
Denis Johnson's The Name of the World, HarperCollins, 2000, is a good book to let wash over your head. It starts out tight and taut, like a James Salter novel, but then things begin to slip and slide and jiggle and you know you are in Denis Johnson territory. A land of emotional chaos and humor that is borderline sick.
I didn't like Jesus' Son' all that much. It was affecting, but, like the movie, it started to fall apart for me and never regained its center. That falling apart quality, when it works, though, is signature Johnson and it catches us in places we all know can and do fall apart. A fragile world of scarred psyches and seared emotions left stranded, often by accidents of fate.
Michael Reed is in a mental paralysis at the book's opening. Numb, shut off, in a tunnel. He has imaginary conversations with people like the museum security guard posted near a drawing Reed returns to again and again. In these conversations he projects the effects of his own state of prolonged shock. "That is what our imaginary conversations...often touched on. The indiscernible points, the little dimes, where fate takes its sharpest turns. I explained no more to him than I did to anybody else, but he spoke freely of his life after this thing had happened, or hadn't quite. Of how afterward he'd found it impossible to decide anything, or not to decide. How at points in his journey out of mourning he'd wandered into a tunnel in which he traveled alone, and had no one to talk to, and couldn't call out. Because of the consequences, the split second consequences, everything he did or didn't do became impossible. And naturally, because I was talking to him in my head, the whole conversation was a monologue, and it was all about me. Exile, detachment, paralysis, fear--all the qualities people projected onto my flat white surface..." He is talking about grief.
Reed has been invited to teach college history, having worked previously for a controversial conservative US Senator on whom the scent of corruption currently sits. Reed quit the political life of Washington proposing a book on power and the temptation to abuse it, but was turned down only to be invited to the university instead. He admittedly does almost nothing at his teaching post, pointing out that there is a good deal of funded doing-nothing at that level, in that sector of society, and that this state of affairs suits him in his place of emotional rigor mortis. You see, a car crash killed his family four years before the book begins, and Michael Reed is a man who has pretty much not cared what happened to him since: "Went along through my tunnel, as I had for four years now. I took each step entirely out of a dull curiosity, not as to what waited ahead, because I didn't care, but as to whether or not I could take one more step." The book is largely the story of his emergence from the cocoon of grief.
Good old, reliable sexual attraction provides the thrust out in the form of a red-headed graduate student who plays the cello, paints, does performance pieces on her own body--like publicly shaving her genitals, enters strip contests and takes signing lessons from a deaf boy. It occurred to me how Flower Cannon had time to do half these things, and study too, but that question would be to bend Denis Johnson's world into a shape that would only break it. In fact, Flower does most of these things poorly, by her own admission, though she wins the strip contests because she is willing to display crotch, or, as she explains: "'You take it all off, you get the prize. Gynecology triumphs.'"
But it's not her exposures, or her overt sexuality that gets to Michael. It is that she is a genuinely wild spirit; "Oh, you're wild. You're light. Even when you're perfectly still you're ready to be blown all around by the elements." But Flower is also a shimmering ghost for Michael, a ghost of his dead young daughter. He sees her mostly in passing. First at a faculty member's home where she plays in a string quartet, then by accident in one of her performances, another time catering a faculty affair. He speaks to her once or twice, happens to catch her strip contest, dreams of her once, and, finally, follows her. She is like a memory to him, a walking memory the way she comes and goes, appears and disappears, and she is free, like a memory; mutable, tricky the way a memory can be, hard to nail and be sure of.
It is with Flower Cannon that he finally has his first real conversation in four years. He is able to speak with her because she is wild. He has learned that the University is about to let him go, a year earlier than he had anticipated they would. He is without a plan, without a place to go after this college town that gives out to the open prairies of the midwest. Flower, in her own way, is already adrift. It's hard to imagine her ever being anything but a floater, a petal in the breeze. Now Michael Reed is adrift, not only in his mind, but cut loose from the one structure he had, the teaching job that kept him on the ground.
He goes to the casino where the strip contests take place on a whim. It's on an Indian Reservation on the Sioux River, and, while there, he manages to have his nose punched in. Humiliated, he takes it, does not react. The punch is delivered by a talkative stranger he'd met on the bus out (Reed has not driven a car since the crash took his wife and daughter) with whom he enters into an inane conversation after watching the girls strip. It's the kind of conversation that can become competitive and go hideously off in an instant. The kind that can happen between two friends, or lovers, or strangers. Suddenly there is a remark that one of the party takes exception to, usually something stupid and inconsequential. Then there is anger, and maybe blows and a friend is gone as a result, a relationship ended; silence from then on where a voice had been shared. Kind of like an unexpected death, say from an accident, or sudden illness. In an instant the ties that bind are cut.
With past humiliations, Michael tells us, he'd look for a book on the topic. For instance, if it was a mistake he'd made delivering a speech, he'd buy a book on public speaking, or in the case of a fist fight, he might consider a book on self-defense. At about this point I realized I was reading a fictional memoir. But I didn't pick that up right away. Maybe I'm slow, but the style of the book is different. There are no chapter breaks, it's not quite linear; time flows out from disconnected events, and we are minimally kept abreast by the subtlest of cues. There is an arc, but forget about plot. The book evolves out of Michael's numbness, events pile up from inside his tunnel until the entrance is blocked, and we've inched our out.
The book is filled with zingers. Moments in the writing, and whole blocks of sentences that zing like arrows through the air, shot with superb aim into who we are. I'll leave with a few quotes. You can read the book to find the context:
"About the danger in hiding oneself away from the nauseating vastness of a conscious human life."
"I wondered what it must sound like out in the empty green fields under the cloudless sky, how heartrendingly small even such a crowd of voices must sound rising up into the infinite indifference of outer space. I felt lonely for us all, and abruptly I knew there was no God."
"'There's a perfect stillness at the center of Washington,' I said, and he folded his hands before him with the pleasant air of someone stuck beside a psycho on a public bus. 'It's natural to talk about it in paradoxes,' I insisted. 'Everything in the world is going on there, but nothing's happening. It's all essential, but it's all completely pointless. The motives are virtuous, but whatever you do just sucks. And then you retire with great praise.'"
"And I drove like a spear through the tiny towns, miniatures in a work of meticulous depiction floating on the fields of corn and soy, went speeding along through them towards some deep violent conclusion--to have my heart torn out and eaten while I watched. The sun had set but the fields were soaked with light in the dusk. I wanted to stagger to the shore of this mindless iridescence and throw into it my most beloved thing, my very favorite thing."
Sound like fun? As I said, it's a book to wash over your head.
©June, 2001 J Stefan-Cole
[email protected] | July 2001 | Issue 16
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