Artist of anomie: Denis Johnson

As he approaches the finale of his tale, the narrator of Denis Johnson's fifth novel, The Name of the World, begins to doubt the efficacy of his words. "Am I making sense in this account?" he wonders. "Am I intelligible? Or am I muttering. I think it stands a chance of being useful....But am I being too meditative? Too introspective?" Thanks to Johnson's perfectly calibrated prose, our narrator, Michael Reed, a professor at a Midwestern university, is guilty of no such offenses. Instead he glues us to the story of how he dealt with an inconsolable tragedy.

On a wintry day, Reed's wife and daughter climbed into a car that took them to their death. In the aftermath of the event, Reed withdraws from life as if he could watch it from far above, a passive nonparticipant. Describing a football stadium near his house, he neatly records the way grief has enveloped his days: "The whole world had seeped away and down into this bowl. The playing field below me was utterly green with vegetable life and white with electric light, floating in an empty blackness."

Thus Reed emerges as a new creation for Johnson. Unlike the desperate addicts in Johnson's previous books, such as Jesus' Son (now a movie) or Angels, Reed suffers in a way that has no outward manifestation. He keeps up this façade for the first ten pages of his story, babbling on about incidental events--the impending doom of his professorial appointment, the smarmy politicking of his fellow academics--before casually mentioning his family's death. The Name of the World accumulates emotional weight with such bombshell asides. The second moment like this occurs when Reed mentions that as he watches skaters on a nearby rink he likes to talk to his invisible friend. It's such a slight narrative twitch, like that experienced by Tyler Durden in Fight Club, that if you read quickly, you might miss it.

Over time, however, it becomes clear that Reed's control bends like a thin reed in a hard wind. When he loses his job, he declines an even better one. Instead he goes on a gambling trip with a stranger and buys a car he cannot afford. Driving this vehicle makes him feel like a criminal: "I can't think of any more significant betrayal in my life, that is, any clearer contradiction of a former self, than owning this car after four years' mourning two victims of a car crash." What finally pushes him to the edge--and here Johnson toys with predictability--is a female graduate student/performance artist named Flower Cannon, who Reed first encounters shaving her mons veneris onstage. Reed befriends Flower, attends church with her, and eventually has an opportunity to sleep with her. At this watershed, however, Reed finally wakes up to the frozen lake of sadness inside him.

Getting to this moment, where Reed acknowledges the depth of his loss, brings us almost to the end of Johnson's story. In the remaining pages, Reed's story fades out, as he tells us of his new job reporting from war zones. He sounds breezy and happy. The dark passage he brought so fully to light seems to him far away. But the reader remains longer at the event horizon of this psychic black hole, discomfited at how near Reed came to plunging in.

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