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The Name of the World: A Novel Hardcover – June 20, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

The Name of the World finds Denis Johnson the visionary poet and Denis Johnson the sober novelist engaged in a puzzling tug of war. What begins as a muted evocation of grief takes increasingly strange turns, until the novel's second half spins away from the narrative logic of the first. The result is, well, mixed, a beautiful mess glued together mostly by the power of Johnson's transcendent prose. The protagonist this time around is not a junkie or a drug dealer or even a writer, but a college professor whose wife and child died four years earlier in an automobile accident. Michael Reed walks, he talks, he teaches, but inside his thoughts rip "perpetually around a track like dogs after a mechanized rabbit." Not much has happened since their death, and numbed by the habit of grief, he thinks that's just fine. "Nothing was required of me," Reed thinks. "I just had to put one foot in front of the other, and one day I'd wander wide enough of my dark cold sun to break gently from my orbit."

That occasion comes when Reed reaches the premature end of his university appointment--and meets a redheaded cellist, the sort of wild, witchy, and becomingly deranged coed often found in books but perhaps less often in life. Flower Cannon (not, as one may imagine, the name she was born with) also shaves her pubic hair as public performance art and offers stripteases for fun and profit on the side. As the novel grows less coherent, Reed blunders into her childhood dream, or memory, which echoes his own dream and is also somehow haunted by the ghost of his daughter, or maybe Flower herself is the ghost of his daughter, or, well, something to that effect. (Dialogue such as "You. Are you a siren? A witch?" does little to clarify the situation.) But in the end it doesn't matter, because the dilemma this student presents Reed is as old as all time, and as easy to describe: "To let my wife and child be dead. I didn't think I was cruel enough for that. Because that is what the imperfections in Flower's skin invited me to do. There was a sense in which Anne and Elsie had to be killed, and killing them was up to me."

Actually, this sort of straightforward psychological exposition isn't really Johnson's bag. Like his antihero, he's after "the unforeseen"--that which can't be explained in words but only suggested through imagery, the more shocking the better. "In my current frame of mind I'd hoped for warnings much stranger and not so obvious," Reed thinks after reading a religious tract. In a similar vein, Johnson instructs us how to read his book: "I think this narrative might cohere, if I ask you to fix it with this vision: luminous images, summoned and dismissed in a flowering vagueness." Vagueness does indeed flower here, but it does so amid flashes of genuine brilliance, the kind of writing that gave the classic Jesus' Son its particular brand of unhinged lyricism.

Reed, for instance, is surrounded by characters in memorably Johnsonian states of desperation. History professor Tiberius Soames, fresh on the heels of a nervous breakdown: "Michael, we must get out of this flatness. The flatness and the regimented plant life. The vastly regimented plant life"; the caterer, a Peter Lorre look-alike who calls herself the Froggy Bitch and has the "smashed sinuses of an English bulldog"; the head trauma patient who wanders the grounds of a former lunatic asylum, holding aloft a small, imaginary object like an invisible torch: "I don't know. I can't see it. It's very light." No one but Johnson could bestow such radiant strangeness upon the inhabitants of a Midwestern college town. And if Reed's final, defiantly unreflective stance isn't much of a revelation, well, one hates to request a man with a knife sticking out of his eye in every Denis Johnson book. As brief and vivid as a hallucination, The Name of the World is the work of a prose musician who wisely refuses to play the same note twice. --Mary Park

From Publishers Weekly

Spare, introspective and arresting, Johnson's (Jesus' Son; Already Dead) new novel explores a middle-aged college professor's attempts to come to terms with the gruesome twist of fate that has robbed him of his family. After losing his wife, Anne, and daughter, Elsie, in a tragic automobile accident, ex-political speechwriter Mike Reed seeks refuge in the insular world of academia. Cloistered deep in the bosom of an unnamed Midwestern university, he teaches history, halfheartedly tries to obtain a research grant and reflects morosely on his losses. In episodic vignettes, Mike fails to impress his departmental superiors with his professorial aptitude, visits a Native American casino where he gets involved in a pointless barroom imbroglio, and becomes obsessed with the eccentric but spirited Flower Cannon, a sexy red-headed student/performance-artist/cellist/stripper. Johnson depicts Mike's emotional paralysis and anguished bouts of uncertain self-exploration with pellucid clarity and uncommon sensitivity. His gift for restrained yet elegant prose is evident, as is his ability to blend erudite reflection with hints of humor. A simple painting, charting a gradually deteriorating geometric progression, that Mike encounters in a campus museum early in the novel leads him to half-seriously opine that the picture "illustrated the church's grotesque pearling around its traditional heart, explained the pernicious extrapolating rules and observances of governmentsAimplicated all of us in a gradual apostasy from every perfect thing we find or make." Though some may find it pretentious, the novel is crammed with similar observations mixing cynicism and self-aware humor, ambitious theorizing and multidisciplinary savvy. In the end, Johnson's eloquent examination of one man's persistent inability to extricate himself from the tenacity of grief manages to be both lyrical and raw. (July) FYI: A movie based on Jesus' Son will open in June.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (June 20, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060192488
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060192488
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,115,830 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Mr.Johnson has a great talent, but it is not evident here.
Robert Bezimienny
This novel/novella is a very short work (143 pages) but reads like a tweener ( a too long, short story or a novel that didn't quite develope).
Timothy Gager
This premise could work, except that Johnson's trademark spot-on dialog and wit seem to be missing, and the story lacks conviction.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Bryan Charles on July 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is an eerie, effective little novel that can be read in a single sitting like a long short story (the text is uninterrupted by chapter headings or breaks of any kind). While thematically similar to Johnson's previous novel, Already Dead (and in fact most of his body of work), it couldn't be more different stylistically. Where Already Dead aimed for twisted excesses of plot and character, The Name of the World goes for sparse, restrained beauty. Johnson hasn't been this lyrical with this prose since Jesus' Son. Almost every sentence reads like a revelation, a last line to be savored and internalized. Even when things get loony, with Flower and her strange, rambling story, this remains a stunning meditation on human suffering and deliverance. At times, as Michael Reed unloaded his psychic trauma, I was reminded of Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford's sportswriter-turned-real-estate-agent. Like Reed, Bascombe also flirted with college teaching, for many of the same reasons and with similar results. Reed is ultimately a much darker character, but the similarities are there. The Name of the World is a truly great offering from one of our more talented fiction writers.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By W. Flesch on August 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover
It's scary what a good writer Johnson is, and it must be scary to him. The Name of the World is an exploration of how far you can go if you trust your talent (and if you are as talented as Johnson) -- it's about seeing what happens when you go there: what happens when the eroticized goal of most fiction can be put aside in favor of another goal, an exploration of what can happen when eros is acknowledged and put aside. What you get is a kind of intensity that can only be literary -- can only be afforded by literary space. I don't mean that Johnson is an extreme experimentalist, although his originality is shocking. I mean that he's an explorer of extremity, and things get to that point in this book when you start wishing -- paradoxically -- for something other than the satisfaction of a wish. Johnson reminds us that literature isn't at its most intense about wish-fulfillment (as Freud suspected) but about what's other to all possibility of fulfillment: a kind of longing for the name of the world which is the only name it can have.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Brady A Butterfield on January 31, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Here's the source: I'm a big Denis Johnson fan. If I had read his stuff during puberty, I would probably be gay and stalking him right now. Hope that's not offensive.
It's not a bad book, but in my opinion it's the worst Denis Johnson book. It read like a draft that had been bleached. The desperation, emptiness, and desolation aren't counterbalanced by unbelievable metaphors and very-believable grit as well as they are in his other works. The characters and plot have quirks and purpose, but they're missing connective tissue between the two. And pay attention during the prolonged, fade-out ending, lest you try to read the blank pages after the text ends...
There were a couple of subtly beautiful moments, but I agree with the reviewer who recommended Jesus' Son. I would also recommend Angels and, if you like or could like poetry, The Incognito Lounge (which is in "The Throne of the..." etc collection). It would be a shame if you dismissed Johnson because you read this book first.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I am a devoted fan of "Jesus's Son" and think D.J.'s earlier novels are all quite interesting, though uneven and at times too portentous and sentimental. This one, however is so flat, melodramatic and unrealized that I cannot believe it would have been published without the "Jesus's Son" connection. The improbably unsophisticated narrator/protagonist, Michael Reed, plays out the last days of his temporary university appointment while trying to come to terms w/ the loss of his family four years earlier. Johnson leaves the social framework of the midwestern university flat and undramatized -- so there's little for the reader to catch hold of here. Reed's rather stale voice tends to override Johnson's own brilliant poetic intensity. The central female character, Flower Cannon is as ludicrous as her yin-yang name -- suffice it to say that her most fascinating act -- in Reed's eyes -- is shaving her pubis for a small audience of university students. Not trying to be P.C. here, but, the name of the world is not synonymous with "B.P". I think the novel's worth reading for Johnson fans, simply because it does have a few random absurdly funny and visionary moments and I think even the failures of someone this gifted are interesting. Otherwise, head directly for Jesus's Son, which has to be one of the most beautifully written works of American fiction of the late twentieth century!
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By "elljay" on October 14, 2001
Format: Hardcover
An oblique, perverse novel, "The Name of the World" strains credibility in its attempts to defy reader expectations--Johnson is not one to allow Event B to follow Event A; he'd rather throw in Event Z out of the blue, just for the heck of it--but the end result is nonetheless a strong, memorable, affecting book. It is not a "well-made" novel, though, and it may help to recall the willful craziness of "Jesus' Son," which made similar demands on the reader. Where the earlier book was a collection of interrelated stories, "The Name of the World" is one long first-person narrative, devoid of chapter breaks, which meanders all over the map--the basic strategy is more or less the same, though. It's a "mess," but I'm certain the mess is deliberate, and the narrative is hypnotically effective. Far from a failure, it strikes me as a book by a very confident writer at the top of his game.
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