I had the great good fortune of introducing Denis Johnson, one my writing heroes, at the Writers of Rutgers series last week. Here's the text of my remarks along with a picture that will always make me happy.
DENIS JOHNSON INTRO
Some prose writers only claim care about story. Or story and character--that’s what they’ll say. But when it comes language? Some will use this time to clear their throats. Others might say it’s the writer's duty to transcend his sentences, as if language is mere contrivance, something that stands iDn the way of an experience that wants to be rightful and true.
Denis Johnson knows that each sentence contains a story in itself. A story--a novel--is a constellation of little stories, all of which tell us about consciousness. Or is it dreaming? In Denis Johnson’s work, consciousness and dreaming are the same things, and this is achieved by sentences, by which I mean a meticulous attention to perception, to disruption, to the sound of human thinking.
Take, for instance, this paragraph, from "The Other Man," in Jesus’ Son.
This man was just basically one of those people on a boat, leaning on the rail like the others, his hands dangling over like bait. The day was sunny, unusual for the Northwest Coast. I’m sure we were all feeling blessed on this ferryboat among the humps of very green—in the sunlight almost coolly burning, like phosphorous—islands, and the water of inlets winking in the sincere light of day, under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God, despite the smell, the slight dreamy suffocation, of some kind of petroleum-based compound used to seal the deck’s seams.
Here we meet a vision of things. It is not a coherent vision--the very casual offhand second sentence slams up against poetry. It is paragraph-making as collage. It is the story of God versus the manmade, the lyric versus the earthbound. It is a world of oppositions, in which it’s possible for sunlight to be hot and cool at once. It is irreverence; it is prayer. There is energy in the collisions. And is there really an island embedded in that sentence? Yes, between the word “green” and the word “islands,” we see an island, in the distance, in the syntax, which strikes me as both funny and a little revelation. And what better way to drive home the manmade than to seal the paragraph with the smell of petroleum, dirty petroleum, the ruin of us, which lingers, longer than the end of the paragraph.
But Denis Johnson’s work is never merely content to dwell in the ruin of us. That’s an old story by now, and his work wants more than that. Even in his work’s most violent moments, there’s a current toward what--Light? Quiet? Eternity? His characters can look anything but divine, and it is sometimes hard to see past their actions, which can be brutal or frustrating, but all of them are struggling with what it means to be present. The work goes about this in a pretty sneaky fashion. It doesn’t clobber us over the head with it. It is never simplistic or moralistic. And it doesn’t profess to have answers, which might be why this fiction is always active and alive. In that way it keeps company with the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Joy Williams, whose stories seem to escape our ability to stake them into the ground. As soon as we think we know what grace is, they slip out of our reach and rise into air.
There’s a Denis Johnson moment that I can’t get out of my head. It is from the novella Train Dreams, his most recent book. At this point in the story, Grainier, the central character, revisits the land where he lived once with a wife and daughter. That wife and daughter were lost in a fire that burned up their cabin. In this passage, Grainier is stumbling through the next life when he comes upon a young dog.
Grainier felt sure this dog was got of a wolf, but it never even whimpered in reply when the packs in the distance, some as far away as the Selkirks on the British Columbia side, sang at dusk. The creature needed to be taught its nature, Grainier felt. One evening he got down beside it and howled. The little pup only sat on its rump with an inch of pink tongue jutting stupidly from its closed mouth. “You are not growing in the direction of your own nature, which is to howl when the others do,” he told the mongrel. He stood up straight himself and howled long and sorrowfully over the gorge, and over the low quiet river he could hardly see across this close to nightfall. Nothing from the pup. But often, thereafter, when Grainier heard the wolves at dusk, he laid his head back and howled for all he was worth, because it did him good.
I cannot say in a few words why this matters. Maybe it simply gets down the pain and beauty of being alive, the animal need to make contact with wordlessness. It recognizes what’s been lost along the way. It is as close to pure music as anything I’ve ever read on the page.
Let’s give Denis Johnson a warm welcome to Rutgers tonight.