on April 20, 2002
It seems unlikely that anyone affluent and successful, or, to use a borrowed phrase, comfortable and powerless, would go in search of anything. Therefore Denis Johnson depicts characters in need, whose only true choices lie in how to fail, and they search endlessly for things, things as disparate as their own souls, meaning in the world, the love of another human being, a sensible ordering of their own thoughts. Their quests bear the taint of madness and of poetry - it is not surprising that they, his protagonists, not least Lenny English in this novel, cultivate ecstatic relationships with their gods, for such relationships blur all too readily into madness.
First and foremost Johnson is a poet. He prises moments and emotions from the depths of ordinariness and sets them wet and gleaming before our eyes. He gives us an insight into a human mind, its particular way of seeing (and avoiding) the world. Consequently, plot is of secondary importance, yet nevertheless this tale has twists and surprises enough to carry the reader steadily along, calmly swimming through events while waiting for the next unsettling insight, the next beautiful passage of prose.
It's also very funny. The humour can come from absurdity, or just from his ear for smart...conversation. He's read Kerouac and moved a long way on from there. In fact, Johnson is plain better than Kerouac.
If you like literature, then this novel is essential, as is Johnson's poetry, collected in "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly", and his short story collection "Jesus' Son".
It's interesting to compare what he's doing with the projects of other, perhaps more feted, contemporary American authors - say, Richard Powers or Don Delillo. For mine, Johnson has fathomed his own soul far deeper than either of these men, and he is not ashamed to expose himself, and he has sharpened his means of so doing. In contrast, Delillo's characters appear soulless, hiding from themselves and his readers; Powers presents people in fractions, their shiny sides open for view, with sneaky peeks at their libidos, and their darker sides miraculously forgotten or rationalised - both these writers of encyclopedic fiction feel almost cowardly when set beside Johnson's work, and neither of them can tell a joke; their prose is often laboured and stupidly erudite, with no hope of attaining the grace of Johnson's, yet their books are without doubt amongst the best being written today. So how good does that make Johnson? Most probably he is a god-forsaken genius. More people need to know about him. For the sake of the world, read his books and spread the word.
on June 26, 2009
I have tried several other Johnson novels, and this is without question his best. The only thing that compares to it is Jesus' Son, the short story collection. Still, for my money, this is not only Johnson's best book, it is one of the 20th century's greatest novels. Superficially, the story is an utterly pessimistic novel lacking any moral center, the sort of novel that the late John Gardner might have condemned, along with so much contemporary American fiction, as "cynical and escapist." The novel traces the protagonist, Leonard English, from his arrival in Provincetown, where he attempts to start over after a botched suicide attempt, to his ultimate mental breakdown in the end.
But we can't understand whether a work of fiction has a moral center until we understand what the writer is trying to do. Having read this novel more than once, it became clear that it is entirely allegorical. Earthly life is presented as a purgatory, with Leonard English as an Anglo-Saxon Everyman. Johnson said in a 2000 interview that he sees himself as a Christian writer, although he regrets his readers don't see him as such. One must be always be careful not to assume a character's views represent the author's views. This is even more the case where the viewpoint character, as here, is mentally unstable. Therefore, although superficially it may appear this novel has no moral center, if we look deeper, this view is unsustainable.
English is the moral center, if a very imperfect and broken one; and despite his problems, he has a sense of morality and ethics. He has compassion. His tragic flaw is he lacks the discipline and determination to settle down into a spiritual practice that can help him overcome his overwhelming sense of alienation. He takes the phenomenal world as Truth rather than seeing it as the distorted product of his own deluded, vexed egoic mind.
English is a protagonist in the anti-hero tradition, an outsider who struggles with faith and redemption in a topsy-turvy world. Upon first reading it, I loved Johnson's vision of this alienated misfit at the extremity of North America, geographically and psychologically (Provincetown), a man whose alienation appears to be not just social but cosmic. His struggle to find a meaning in life is itself a sort of quest with an implicit ethic. If his quest ultimately leads to a psychic disintegration, if he cannot distinguish faith from madness, it is not necessarily a reflection of Johnson's embrace of nihilism. In fact, Leonard English is often appalled at the immorality around him, even while he feels enmeshed in it. Society is full of banal evil. An example is the shown when English and his fellows at Minotaur Systems torture dogs to test their surgical devices.
Outside the torture chamber one gets a glimpse of English's view of an utterly Fallen, sick world: Outside, "the grasses no longer seemed to lie down in the wind, but cringed before the sexual approach of something ultimate. Like a long curse a jet's sound passed close above the building toward the horizon. That an airport could go about its gigantic business in the same world as this laboratory seemed impossible, unless--and he didn't think this so much as feel it as a self-evident fact--unless all things conspired consciously to do perfect evil." (34-5)
But let me talk about this as a writer, because I could write ten pages as a literary critic. The opening is effective inasmuch as it accomplishes at least a couple things while being interesting: (1) it involves us immediately in a scene, which arouses our interest; and (2) our first view of English shows him getting drunk and crashing his car -- the crash will later seem emblematic of the lurching quality of English's life and of his inescapable sense of the universe as ultimately ruled by chance. There is also a bit of wordplay in the first lines which aptly symbolize English's imbalanced mental state:
"He came there in the off-season. So much was off. All bets were off. The last deal was off. His timing was off, or he wouldn't have come here at this moment, and also every second arc lamp along the peninsular highway was switched off. He'd been through several states along the turnpikes, through weary tollgates and stained mechanical restaurants, and by now he felt as if he'd crossed a hostile foreign land to reach this fog with nobody in it, only yellow lights blinking and yellow signs wandering past the car's windows silently."
He crashes his car, and then catches a cab toward his destination at the Cape. In this little scene in the cab, the cab driver lights a joint and offers Leonard a toke. English declines. "Grass makes me feel kind of paranoid." There follows an interesting series of assertions on the part of the driver which to English are demonstrably false. This emphasizes how often what people say is at odds with reality, and it emphasizes as well English's sense of being on-his-own, unable to rely on others.
"I don't get paranoid," the driver said. But he was a paranoid personality if English had ever seen one. "This beyond here, this is absolutely black," the driver said, pointing with the glowing end of his reefer ahead, to where the four-lane highway turned two-way. "No more lights, no more houses"--he drew a chest-ful of smoke--"nuthin, nuthin, nuthin. We won't see no traffic. Not car one." Immediately the red taillights of another car shone ahead. "I think I know this guy." He stomped the gas. "I think this is Danny Moss"--pronounced Dyany Mwas--"this is a Toyota? Cheez, looka how fast this guy's running." They were doing eighty. "We're gonna catch you, Danny. We're gaining on this sucker." But they were falling behind. 
It is an odd technique, like so many fictional techniques, not, strictly speaking, "realistic," but somehow, it works. I think it works by creating a tension, however subtle. Conflict is said to be the essence of drama. It subtly surprises the reader to have this driver say things which are patently untrue. But because he is smoking dope, it is believable enough.
The novel is divided into four sections: 1980, 1981, May-June and Last Days. Not until 13 pages into the novel do we get any real background on English as a character. Then we learn that over a year ago he gave up his job as a medical equipment salesman. He'd taken a vacation during which he tried unsuccessfully to hang himself, extended it with medical leave, then been let go. He has come to Provincetown to start over, having been offered a job as part-time DJ and assistant investigator for the owner of a radio station and detective agency.
The delay in exposition about English's life situation is effective because it presents us with Leonard English, dramatically, rather than merely telling us about him. Johnson could have characterized English far more economically by simply writing:
"English had a discombobulated, anomic view of life, and inwardly suspected he was no more than a random blob of protoplasm in a meaningless and vaguely sinister universe."
And, in fact, some writers can get away with expository openings which introduce protagonists. But it risks losing readers because it is so literal. Instead of expositional characterization, we are first introduced to a policeman who seems, dimly, to be gay; next we observe a cab driver who believes in flying saucers and extraterrestrial star-wanderers who mated with monkeys to produce human beings, and has an apocalyptic vision of a future global cataclysm. Later, English goes to Mass, hoping to confess and gain absolution for attempting to kill himself. But when confronted with the priest, he finds himself wanting to dispense with the formalities of confession and simply be allowed to take Communion. Instead he finds the priest resistant. English abruptly leaves the confessional.
What we have are fully four scenes before any exposition on English's background: the opening scene of the car crash and the officer who "with a certain vague tenderness" applies a Band-Aid to English's forehead; the scene in the car and restaurant with the cab driver, and his discombobulated worldview; and the cheap rooming house scene, where Phil, the cab driver, takes him; and the church scene, in which English first abortively attempts to confess, and later attends mass. The scenes all, in a way, characterize English. They all represent his life situation, his "problem," as it were. They point to a life characterized by accidents; a society full of anomie (Provincetown is notorious for its elastic sexual customs); a sense of an impending apocalyptic future (noted by Phil, but later echoed in the flashback to English's involvement in torturous experiments on dogs, p. 34); and then, at Mass, where English, after being unable to confess due to his resistance to all the ritualistic rigamarole, sees the priest as a "Silly Mister Nobody," i.e., not very believable. English appears to be struggling, yet unable, to believe in the sense and sensibility of his Catholic upbringing.
At first, English is aroused during his first detective assignment, taping and viewing Marla Baker and Leanna Sousa from a tree out in Sousa's front yard. Yet he has doubts about the ethical nature of his work, telling himself he will quit tomorrow. But then he gets hooked by all the gadgetry, and by a peculiar sense of identification with the lesbians.
. . . He felt, sometimes, that in hearing these most private revelations, these things lovers said to one another when they were alone, he'd found the source of a priestly serenity. Listen, he wanted to say, I don't judge you. You comfort me, whatever you do, arguing, lying, making stupid jokes. However small you are, however selfish, I'm there, too. That's me. I'm with you."
A moral perspective is presented, even as English finds himself engaging in a morally questionable practice. There is also an almost god-like sense of omniscience to these passages, as if at some level English enjoys playing god, in a voyeuristic sense but also in an almost spiritual sense. Yet there is also a pathetic sense of hopeless estrangement in his ironic "I'm with you" when in fact he is sitting outside in tree, surreptitiously listening in.
English is a sort of Everyman figure. He struggles to find a moral center to the universe and to have faith in that. If he is unsuccessful in that quest, we cannot thereby fairly accuse him of lacking compassion or morality.
He thought he might as well. "There's really only one question."
"Did God really kill Himself?"
Leanna wasn't smiling now. She was staring at him, but softly.
"Who are you?" she asked him.
Whatever she meant by the question, he didn't want to answer it. He wiped his face with his napkin, and in reference to the warmth of the place said, "Man." (43)
When English watches two boys going home late from school and talking about Halloween, one of them pantomiming an enormous pumpkin, English is oddly effected:
[H]e was amused and heartbroken, watching this kid posing like a ballerina, making a circle the size of a lonely vegetable with his empty arms. The wind blew out to sea, and the air was cold and fresh and so vacant that every object, even the pumpkin that wasn't really there, stood out boldly and seemed to mean something. You are here, he said to God, and then from nowhere came the hope that he was wrong, that the grain of wooden phone poles and the rough stones of the courthouse were taking place on their own, and that nothing would ever be asked of him (74).
The novel is delightful, funny and sad at the same time. The key to understanding it is to recognize that it is allegorical. Johnson is a Christian writer, presenting the fate of man in purgatory. Dante wrote that hell is separation from God. The same may be said for purgatory. English is a Anglo-Saxon Everyman, a seeringly honest portrait of the depths of despair to which the ego of man descends when he is ignorant of his true nature and his unity with the Divine. To the ego in extremis, indeed, very little about this world makes sense, and evil does seem to be in command, while doubt, despair and confusion seem like natural and inevitable conclusions to draw from experience. But in laughing at English's foibles and follies, we laugh in turn at our own, seeing our own egocentric illusions in more extreme form in him. Once we see the story as a cautionary allegorical tale, we realize it contains deep spiritual lessons.