Denis Johnson's The Name of the World is a slim, starkly beautiful novel. In the aftermath of a car accident that kills his wife and child, Mike Reed leaves his job as chief aide to a U.S. senator, and when his book proposal is turned down ("I'd offered to witness power's corrupting influence, but apparently no such witness was required") takes a job as an adjunct professor of history at a pleasant, faceless midwestern university. Reed is persuasively rendered as a walking dead man, the kind of character absolutely no one can paint better than Johnson. This novel stands with his best work, which includes the visionary novel Fiskadoro and the cult-fave story collection Jesus' Son.
Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including the novel The Veracruz Blues.
The Name of the World
Denis Johnson is the author of six works of fiction, each of which conjures up a wholly surreal and yet accurate portrait of some corner of America, from Florida to Seattle to Provincetown to southern California. Read more than one of his books and you begin to see, as does Johnson, the peculiar, David Lynchian threads woven into the warp and woof of our social fabric. In his slender new novel, The Name of the World, Johnson moves into the metaphysical and geographic dead center of the heartland with a powerful and impressionistic narrative about a lost soul adrift on the surface of small-time Midwestern academia.
World-weariness has long been a staple of introspective fiction and theatre. But where Shakespeare's Hamlet was tortured by a task to be done and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and his relatives at least had a huge estate to waste their lives tending to, Johnson's narrator has literally nothing to live for: His wife and small child are dead, killed in a car accident several years before the narrative begins, and he has found himself a meaningless, temporary post in a small university in the middle of rows upon row of cornfields. In some respects, readers will be reminded of the crushed academic of J. M. Coetzee's recent Booker Prize-winner Disgrace. But while Coetzee's book is launched by its protagonist's ill-fated affair with a student, the greater part of Johnson's book is but a prelude to the narrator's conclusive encounter with Flower Cannona beautiful, bizarre graduate student who dances strip-teases at Indian casinos, shaves her genitalia on stage as performance art, caters at faculty events, and haunts the narrator's dreams.
The Name of the World tells the story of a man who has completely lost his grip on any sort of reason to get up in the morning, and Johnson's true gift is at revealing the impressionistic, arbitrary quality of any existence when seen from such lifeless eyes. At a restaurant, the nameless narrator's companion programs a jukebox to play the same Paul McCartney song over and over. He visits a supermarket, buys supplies for several days' worth of meals, and then lets them rot while he dines at restaurants. Such details are both surreal and yet strangely, almost sickeningly mainstream American: Like David Foster Wallace's fantastic and overblown contemporary fantasies, Johnson challenges us to view his own fictions as anything but run-of-the-mill. This is the world we live in, he tells us; this world has the same name.
At points, the novel threatens to melt away into an impressionistic haze and become nothing more than one lost soul's arbitrary diary of loss; when, with 50 pages remaining, the narrator sums up his Midwestern academic world as "vapors of low-lying cynicism, occasional genius, and small polite terror," and goes on to describe his own story as "luminous images, summoned and dismissed in a flowing vagueness," it is easy to think that Johnson's observations are acute and his language brilliant, but that this is not enough. But he redeems the novel's abstractions with a final, deeply affecting sequence in which the narrator finally has his sexual encounter with Flower Cannon. She leads him to an abandoned school where she lives in a studio, steps behind her own canvases (turned to face the wall) and removes her clothes as she tells him the story of her name, and of a man who abducted her as a child and brought her to a "ginger-bread house" where there was another girl named Flower, apparently blind.
This final encounter, and Flower's story, pierces the façade the narrator has maintained throughout the book. Somehow he sees this other blind girl as his own lost child and understands once and for all that the wounds from that loss will never heal. Johnson's finale leaves the reader with the most powerful sort of spine-tingling, as happens when one wakes from an intense dream that is already slipping away. It is impossible to understand exactly what connections have been made, but they have been made nevertheless.
Some would say this is the highest aim of any art: whether or not that's the case, The Name of the World resonates with an emotional force that demonstrates, once again, that Johnson is one of the finest novelists writing today.