Denis Johnson is a new-fashioned fiction writer schooled in old-fashioned narrative ways and means, damaged by psychological forces unknown, and saved from both mainstream popularity and cult obscurity by his knack for exhuming suggestive fragments from disenfranchised male psyches, not to mention a great if slightly conservative curiosity about what the standard American sentence can and can’t do. Technically, his work is most comfortable in the company of books by similarly youngish, mildly experimental realist writers like Steven Wright, A.M. Homes and Rick Moody, but there is a lonesomeness in his voice that makes his shape-shifting body of work seem less calculatedly versatile than strangely all over the place, fueled in unpredictable directions by some honest-to-God restlessness whose origin and aim are hard to pin down. His oeuvre’s resulting mystique inspires devotees in places as far afield as The New York Review of Books and Punk Planet, possibly because, in the classic tradition of American iconoclasts from John Huston to Stan Ridgway, he’s inarguably skilled, well-intentioned and such an irrepressible fuck-up at the same time.
Among his six previous books of fiction, only Jesus’ Son has the vibe one associates with the term “minor classic.” It’s also the work most indebted to a specific literary convention. Jesus’ Son is craggier, prettier Raymond Carver minimalism without the sentimental false notes and trick endings. The rest of Johnson’s books are problematic, but, apart from Fiskadoro, a stiff-jointed, modernist riff on the psychedelic machismo that Thomas McGuane built, and The Stars at Noon, an uncomfortable, Europeanesque art novel and Johnson’s one completely misguided effort, they are sporadically brilliant works of fiction kept from actual greatness by internal battles between Johnson’s talent for simple, emotionally jarred sentences and his dogged need to reconfigure the novel itself.
Already Dead, Johnson’s previous novel, was set in a rather magic, realistically drugged-out, cultish, violent California. An epic by his usual standards, it suffered from a case of gigantism that left him cranking out mechanical and inspired sentences at about a 100-to-1 ratio. The Name of the World is a case of him biting off slightly less than he can chew. It’s a short, polished novel with a small, containable cast of characters, written in a self-consciously dull first-person that prioritizes accumulating incident and interceding memory over any grander narrative schematic. The setting is, as always, a new one for Johnson: this time, the life, past, environs and thought processes of a beleaguered university professor and sometime journalist, Michael Reed, who is mourning the death of his wife and child in a car accident, and facing the possible early end of his career.
The turf and related dilemmas are familiar ones, covered in recent decades by writers as diverse as Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, and The Name of the World follows the now tried-and-true formula: Life-scarred, middle-aged man with stunted artistic aspirations decays in academia, then is revived through a role-reversing, sexual-tension-fraught relationship with an ambitious student, in this case a cartoonishly drawn, Karen Finley–ish performance artist named Flower Cannon. Reed stumbles into one of her on-campus performances, then comes across her in a series of unlikely situations; he’s smitten and intrigued by her artsy, confrontational ideas. A flirtation fizzles, but he comes to admire her fearlessness, and eventually returns to his life as a journalist with Cannon as an unlikely role model and muse.
Johnson’s contributions to the advancement of this growing canon of academia-centered literature are negligible. He essentially does the usual in his unusual voice, and the pleasures here are mild and almost entirely literary. There are well-placed, effective epiphanies signaled by sudden pileups of short, anxious sentences that temporarily and beautifully flush emotion to the novel’s elegant, blasé surface. As Reed’s mind enlivens, the novel’s long, meditative paragraphs break down into an invigorated quasi-journalistic style — all attentive, jotted dialogue that effectively allows the world to come flooding into the novel without derailing its hermeticism. Johnson’s voice functions perfectly at this newly muted volume. Gracefully efficient in mind and body, with occasional ripples of originality, The Name of the World resonates exactly as a novel of this sort should, making it one of his more successful books, if not his most memorable.
So the Denis Johnson mystery continues, and adjectives like “luminous” and “poetic” will undoubtedly dot the blurbs on the back of this novel’s paperback edition, as they do his older books. Whether by accident or design, Johnson’s work is and will remain an enigma as long as he proves himself almost incapable of standing still long enough to nail a particular narrative form and set of characters. As strange as the comparison might appear, with every book he seems more like a kind of Madonna (or, if you prefer, Bowie) of contemporary fiction, his talent equally divided between a gift for up-to-the-minute, authentic gab and an ad man–like ability to recycle the same basic content in a seemingly endless array of Zeitgeist-savvy forms.
It may be an imperfect marriage in most cases, but the result is that his books are eventful enough to cause a considerable amount of initial excitement and happy head scratching. By the time the buzz wears off, and each book’s weaknesses become apparent, his work has moved on. Johnson isn’t the only contemporary novelist whose talent and ambition are weirdly at odds. The overly schematic conventional is practically a genre unto itself. But in his case there’s something ongoing and indefineable that makes his predictably unpredictable missteps haunting and slippery.
Dennis Cooper’s most recent novel is Period.