The Name of the World is a beautiful and deeply melancholic book. It's about Michael Reed, who since the death of his wife and 4-year-old daughter in a car accident four years ago has drifted into a job teaching history at a university but may as well be dead himself.
This may not be new territory for Denis Johnson. I haven't read anything of his except the astonishing Jesus' Son, but two of his earlier titles are Already Dead and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and his new novel might very well have been called Resuscitation of an Already Dead Man. The subject of resuscitation—of the restoration of a dead soul following tragedy—may be as old as the hills, but it's fascinating (we all wonder how we'd handle the loss of everything that makes life worth living) and Johnson has done original things with it.
Reed, who narrates his own story, has been a high school teacher, a political advisor to a U.S. senator, a journalist and a college professor, and he's very sharp, keenly aware of the sentimental pitfalls and sloppy conventions in which such tales can indulge. He'll even interrupt the telling to say, "Looking over the pages of this reminiscence, I see I've misled," just to make sure that he won't do so any longer.
Johnson is a quietly nimble writer—with an American-grain self-reliance that sifts the bullshit machismo out of the Hemingway tradition without losing Papa's faith in the writer's capacity to get at the heart of things—but the mark of the book's style is the sudden eruption from quietness into revelation, like a flash of sheet lightning on the flat Midwestern plains that serve as the novel's landscape. There are literary antecedents for this—Midwesterners like Sherwood Anderson and the poet James Wright—but when I think over The Name of the World, what keeps coming back to me is the image of a single man out in a vast open space under a deep sky leading into infinite space, which is, of course, the quintessential Western-movie image. "I saw myself five minutes down the road," Reed thinks at one point, "the only person in the only car from horizon to horizon." Later, he says, "I stopped the car in the middle of the round shimmering table of the earth." Attending one more in a long series of academic parties in the homes of his colleagues, he's oppressed by "the mental image of a thousand such dwellings pressed window to window across the wide undifferentiated air of a plunging chasm, and me with a spoon and a bowl and a smile in every one of them."
Reed knows how dead he is, but he can't emerge from it. He doesn't drink, he won't drive a car, he doesn't get involved with women, and, at one point, he packs all his things but can't get up the energy to leave his house. "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. I hadn't found much else to interest me along the way. At the risk of stretching the illustration, I can say I sometimes came to turnings in the darkness and wondered if this were a labyrinth."
Our interest, though, isn't dull because Johnson's portrait of Reed's hellish numbness is studded with encounters with some fascinating characters, all haunted in their own way: Clara Frenow, the department chair, just emerging from a bout with cancer; Tiberius Soames, a brilliant, popular professor who has a nervous breakdown; J.J. Stein, whose wife is stolen by a wily, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist/visiting professor named T.K. Nickerson; and Eloise Sprungl, who, after her husband dies of AIDS, simply quits teaching and becomes a caterer of faculty parties.
But his fellow professors, filled with "these vapors of low-lying cynicism, occasional genius and small polite terror," aren't enough to jolt Reed out of his despair. The catalyst Reed has been primed for, however, comes when he stumbles upon something called The Cannon Performance, which turns out to be a performance-art show by an attractive grad student, nude from the waist down, meticulously shaving her pubic hair. Reed careens out of the room, shocked and bemused, and soon begins to realize the "danger in hiding oneself away from the nauseating vastness of a conscious human life." Great, very Johnsonian phrase there: to be conscious is to be aware of a world so huge in scope and dark in implication that it's nauseating. But not to be aware is worse.
This makes the novel sound drearier than it is. In fact, it's brightly surprising, a triumph of economic prose and funny a lot of the time, particularly when Reed, acting purely out of impulse, gets on a bus and hitches up with a guy named Vince, who takes him to a strip joint and ends up smacking him in a ridiculous drunken brawl. What doubles the interest here is that one of the strippers turns out to be the preposterously named Flower Cannon—late of The Cannon Performance—and soon something begins to bloom between the 26-year-old grad student and the 53-year-old burnout. What that something is isn't easily articulable—it's partly lust but not just that: Flower reminds Reed of both his wife and the unlived life of his 4-year-old daughter.
What does become clear is that Flower is the minotaur who'll help lead Reed out of his labyrinth. One day, he follows her car out to a revival meeting that she attends not because she's religious but because of "the singing," and during the service, Reed has one of his revelations: there were "nearly 300 people, all singing beautifully. I wondered what it must sound like out in the empty green fields under the cloudless blue 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."
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The shock of this amazing passage is mitigated when we learn that for Reed, "God" is "this killer, this perpetrator, in whose blank silver eyes nobody was too insignificant, too unremarkable, too innocent and small to be overlooked in the parceling out of tragedy." God is what killed his wife and daughter.
Freed from this malevolent spirit, "a tight winding of chains had burst," and with Flower's further promptings—which are mysterious, even ghostly—Reed is led out of the labyrinth toward his resuscitation and reconnection with the larger world. Thinking about an academic dinner-party conversation in which the talk turned to art, Reed says, "I realized that what I first require of a work of art is that its agenda—is that the word I want?—not include me. I don't want its aims put in doubt by an attempt to appeal to me, by any awareness of me at all."
It's clear Johnson believes this, and I like very much the way he does an end-run around all the mediocre theorizing about the necessarily implicit political agendas of novels. Delving into the suffering of one's characters —which Johnson does with a tender pitilessness—can be a writer's act of self-purification, and for a writer like Johnson, it may be the sole path to his visionary art—the only way he can clear away enough mental debris to create a character as full-souled as Michael Reed and a novel as luminous as The Name of the World.
The Name of the World by Denis Johnson; Harper Collins. Hardcover, 129 pages; $22.