Dead and loving it
I’m going to earn a reputation as a reviewer who can’t make up his mind.
Denis Johnson’s novel The Name of the World has wonderful, beautifully written prose, non-stereotypical characters and intriguing, under-examined themes. On the other hand, it has an unresolved, anti-climactic ending. On the third and final hand, maybe real-life stories are unresolved and anti-climactic, because people go on living after tragedies.
Johnson is best known for his beautiful novel Jesus’ Son, which was made into a critically acclaimed movie last year. (Personally, I fell asleep three times at the exact same spot in the movie when I tried to watch it on my VCR. The second time I was watching it in reverse, trying to find the point at which I fell asleep the first time.)
The Name of the World tells the story of Michael Reed, an adjunct associate professor of history in a Midwest university. Reed’s major conflict is that his wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident four years prior.
But Reed is dead, metaphorically speaking, cocooned against life by grief and guilt.
Reed goes through life’s motions—attending parties, having conversations with friends, thinking deep thoughts, drinking too much. It is at a faculty party that he crosses paths with Flower Cannon, the woman who could be a beacon to direct him back to life.
The second time he comes upon her, she is engaged in shaving her mons veneris during a performance art exhibition. Somehow, this piques his interest (I’m not that much of a fan of performance art myself), and he begins to re-engage life by fantasizing about her, an all-too-true cliché about middle-aged men and younger women. He’s 53, she’s 26.
Reed gets to know Cannon through a series of chance encounters, including one in a casino when he is on a little adventure. In this meeting, he sees her after a striptease competition, which she won by dropping her G-string. Later, Reed gets punched in the nose by a friend he met on the bus. This punch serves as a turning point for the book, a literal and figurative wake-up call for Reed. Cannon, drunk, gives him a ride home. This is almost exactly the middle of the book.
Now we come to my problem with the novel, the section which may make the book brilliant … or may not. Reed begins to pursue Cannon, at least in his dreams. He is in love with her, or maybe just in love with what she represents—a return to youth, passion, life.
After another encounter, a weird scene in a country church, he and Cannon end up at Cannon’s home. There, Johnson gives us some insight into Cannon’s character, the background that allows her to “do crazy things without having to be crazy,” to live life. In short, they have the kind of conversation consenting adults have right before they commence rubbing red parts.
And then: “Looking over the page of this reminiscence, I see I’ve misled. I’ve created the impression that what I’ve been aiming at is the account of a one-night stand.”
You’re damned right you have.
And even after the apology, Reed goes back to Cannon. They’re kissing wildly. They’ve got his pants off. Woo-hoo. We’re cheering Reed and Cannon on like they’re the leaders in the New York Marathon. And then he stops. He can’t drink at the fountain of life or let his wife and daughter be dead.
Yes, there’s a little more narrative to follow and a little more action beyond the anti-climax. Reed becomes a journalist, traveling the world, seeing history-shaking events and wars. He claims he’s living a life he believes to be utterly remarkable but, to me, he’s doing more reading than he is writing, listening to music instead of making it, observing as opposed to participating.
Is this ending real? Do people overturn the tabernacle and then run from the Holy Grail? Yes, they do it all the time. Does it make for a good story? I don’t know. I can’t quite make up my mind.