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The Name of the World

The Name of the World

4.6 5
by Denis Johnson

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The acclaimed author of Jesus' Son and Already Dead returns with a beautiful, haunting, and darkly comic novel. The Name of the World is a mesmerizing portrait of a professor at a Midwestern university who has been patient in his grief after an accident takes the lives of his wife and child and has permitted that grief to enlarge him.



The acclaimed author of Jesus' Son and Already Dead returns with a beautiful, haunting, and darkly comic novel. The Name of the World is a mesmerizing portrait of a professor at a Midwestern university who has been patient in his grief after an accident takes the lives of his wife and child and has permitted that grief to enlarge him.

Michael Reed is living a posthumous life. In spite of outward appearances — he holds a respectable university teaching position; he is an articulate and attractive addition to local social life — he's a dead man walking.

Nothing can touch Reed, nothing can move him, although he observes with a mordant clarity the lives whirling vigorously around him. Of his recent bereavement, nearly four years earlier, he observes, "I'm speaking as I'd speak of a change in the earth's climate, or the recent war."

Facing the unwelcome end of his temporary stint at the university, Reed finds himself forced "to act like somebody who cares what happens to him. " Tentatively he begins to let himself make contact with a host of characters in this small academic town, souls who seem to have in common a tentativeness of their own. In this atmosphere characterized, as he says, "by cynicism, occasional brilliance, and small, polite terror," he manages, against all his expectations, to find people to light his way through his private labyrinth.

Elegant and incisively observed, The Name of the World is Johnson at his best: poignant yet unsentimental, replete with the visionary imaginative detail for which his work is known. Here is a tour de force by one of the most astonishing writers at work today.

Editorial Reviews


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 Cannon—a 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.

Jake Kreilkamp

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.32(d)

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The Name of the World
A Novel

Chapter One

Since my early teens I've associated everything to do with college, the "academic life," with certain images borne toward me, I suppose, from the TV screen, in particular from the films of the 1930s they used to broadcast relentlessly when I was a boy, and especially from a single scene: Fresh-faced young people come in from an autumn night to stand around the fireplace in the home of a beloved professor. I smell the bonfire smoke in their clothes and the professor's aromatic pipe tobacco, and I feel the general, unquestioned sweetness of youth, of autumn, of college — the sweetness of this life. Not that I was ever in love with this dream, or even particularly drawn to it. It's just that I concluded it existed somewhere. My own undergraduate career stretched over six or seven years, interrupted by bouts of work and transfers to a second and then a third institution, and I remember it all as a succession of requirements and endorsements. I didn't attend the football games. I don't remember coming across any bonfires. By several of my teachers I was impressed, even awed, and their influence shaped me as much as anything else along the way, but I never had a look inside any of their homes. All this by way of saying it came as a surprise, the gratitude with which I accepted an invitation to teach at a university.

When the chance came along, I was nearly fifty. After college I'd taught high school for better than a decade, earning postgraduate credits in the summers. One day I wrote a letter to a presidential candidate, advising him on policy and strategy (this was Senator Thomas Thom of Oklahoma; hefaded early in the primaries), and although I'd had no idea people who wrote such letters were ever heeded, much less hired, in a blink I went from Mr. Reed the Social Studies person to Mike Reed the speechwriter, staff floater, and cloakroom confidant, and spent nearly twelve years in Washington. I quit just after Senator Thom began his fifth term. I took the job at the University when my book idea was turned down — I'd offered to witness to power's corrupting influence, but apparently no such witness was required.

Then I found myself in the Comparative Studies wing of the Humanities Building, although I was actually an Adjunct Associate Professor of History. (The Humanities Department was long ago dissolved to form more departments, bigger departments; the old building houses budgetary mavericks, grant-sponsored programs and the like, experiments that live out their funding periods and fade away. Somehow this became the home of History.) I ran small seminars, asking bright, undirected students to read books I'd already read and then listening while they presented papers to the rest of the group for criticism. In other words, I didn't do anything. This would have interfered not at all with a glorious future in that place, but I didn't bother with the other side of business there, either, the meetings and the memos and so on.

Four renewals was about the limit for my type of appointment, and I was near the end of my third. After next year, they'd move me along. Meanwhile, I was on vacation.

But people in positions like mine have to keep alert for new ones, and so I found myself one evening dining in a group of eleven at the home of Ted MacKey, Chairman of the School of Music. The surroundings came close to the 1930s moving picture of this life: the snowflakes coming down outside in a college-town night that threatened to add to itself the jingling of sleigh bells and the songs of young carolers, while inside the house, lodge-like in its dimensions, we all drank hot buttered rum around a warm blaze that sent a changing light under the lustrous mantel and onto windows of leaded glass, and onto a black antique telescope and a monstrous beige globe I would have bet presented the world as it had been long ago, but would never be again. We drank hot buttered rum in the atmosphere, in other words, of a very expensive gift shop. It oppressed me. It oppressed me although I'd been given my supper in plenty of homes exactly like it at other universities and in Washington, and I'd even eaten here at Ted MacKey's, two winters previous. It oppressed me for that thought as much as any other, maybe, 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.

The dinner that night honored a distinguished visitor to our campus, the Israeli composer Izaak Andropov. As it happened, he'd taken a fever, and didn't attend.

I was here to make a new acquaintance, the head of a University fiefdom called the Forum for Interpretive Scholarship. The Forum had money. They had Associate-level jobs. They had offices, salaries, everything. Best of all they had no duties, no classes. Or so Ted MacKey had promised me, letting out this information in a casual way, as if I might not be looking around for another slot someplace the year after next. This happened all the time, that is, people I hardly knew often suggested, one way or another, that they'd like to help me. I was the object of much goodwill, in fact, sometimes because the man I'd worked for in Washington was disliked, and I'd quit him; or, conversely, because he was liked, and I'd worked for him. In any case, here was a chance to stretch out my vacation another academic year or two. Nothing ever happened at the Forum beyond an occasional presentation by one of the scholars, most of them emeriti from Big Ten universities and such, who just dragged out the lectures they'd been dragging out this...

The Name of the World
A Novel
. Copyright © by Denis Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Denis Johnson is the author of The Name of the World, Already Dead, Jesus' Son, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon, and Angels. His poetry has been collected in the volume The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. He is the recipient of a Lannan Fellowship and a Whiting Writer's Award, among many other honors for his work. He lives in northern Idaho.

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'What I first require of a work of art is that its agenda not include me. I don't want its aim put in doubt by any attempt to appeal to me, by any awareness of me at all' (from page 73) The Name of the World is precisely that--a work of art that exists purely to inspire. There is no self consciousness to Johnson's prose. Central character Mike Reed is everyman. After losing his wife and daughter in a fatal car crash, his life becomes a vacuum, but not one of which he is unaware. As the story progresses he interacts with an odd collection of characters: A museum security guard with whom he has interior monologues regarding a work of art; a young wild child named Flower, who represents all the possibilities of living an untame life; a drunken colleague who's pronouncements on death are a harbinger for the self awakening Mike undergoes by the novel's end. Much of this book is allegoric and metaphorical and its slimness is essential to this. In Mike we understand the essence of humanity, the selves we keep locked away for fear of losing them, and those we need to share in hopes of attaining something greater than ourselves. I would suggest reading this book in one sitting and re-reading it several days later.