The Name of the World by Denis Johnson
(HarperCollins, cloth, $23)
Idaho author Denis Johnson has received great acclaim for his literary work. He has been compared to Twain, Whitman, and Kerouac, and the word “brilliant” is not infrequently tossed in his direction. Much of this praise came following the publication of his collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son. The stories follow a young heroin-addict as he encounters a seemingly endless series of mental and physical adventures. The language likewise has an acute vitality; it jumps off the page just as you imagine the young man jumping around in drug-induced fits.
So maybe it’s just that a widower who has no interest in his own life or the lives of those around him, save a passing awareness of a beautiful and talented student, doesn’t lend itself to much excitement in the way of description. That’s fair enough, but really there’s got to be something interesting about Mike Reed, sometime-professor, middle-aged widower, and protagonist of Denis Johnson’s latest novel, The Name of the World.
At the start of the story, Mike Reed is in the position of seeing the end of his academic career nigh and just not caring about it. His wife and daughter died in a car crash four years earlier, and though he claims that he has begun to move past the paralyzing depression of this loss, he continues to interact with the world passively. If he gets a new job he’ll take it, if he doesn’t it’s no loss; he buys groceries then lets them rot while he has others serve him dinner; and he has imaginary conversations more often than real ones.
Mike Reed is a self-aware character bred of a novel whose main trait is depression, and Johnson does well in riding the fine line between self-awareness and self-pity. It is not an easy thing that Johnson is attempting: To mirror the inner and outer effects of depression requires a nuanced understanding of the detached.
At one point, Mike describes his life as “the movie I’d inhabited.” It’s a metaphor that well describes Mike’s interactions with those around him, including Flower Cannon, the young student who serves as a constant reminder of both his wife and daughter, as well as the style of almost-flippant observation that Johnson himself often uses. Even with his avowals to the reader, which occur infrequently, an intimacy with the reader is never quite established.
Johnson is indeed a talented writer, though given the subject of depression and unrealized ideals, The Name of the World demands an appreciation of the subtle. Johnson is best when his understanding of Mike Reed rings true. When Mike goes to the college art museum, for instance, he often has “imaginary” conversations with the guard on duty. “And naturally, because I was talking to him in my head, the whole conversation was a monologue, and it was all about me.” Such honesty is the key to unlocking the walled-off character of Mike Reed.
Leap by Terry Tempest Williams
(Pantheon, cloth, $25)
A Mormon girl sleeps beneath the painting El jardin de las delicias (The garden of delights) by 16th century Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch. Her grandmother has tacked it to the bulletin board above her bed so she falls asleep with those hypnotic and enigmatic images in her mind, “Paradise” and “Hell.” It is not until years later that as a woman she sees the painting, a triptych, for the first time when she visits the Prado Museum in Madrid. She finds that the center panel, the one called “Earthly Delights,” had been kept from her as a child. And it is this omission that leads her on a journey of conscience, an attempt to reconcile her rigid Mormon faith with a mind that seeks to be informed by experience.
Leap is the story of Utah-based writer Terry Tempest Williams, a visceral account of Bosch’s painting in which she delves into its complex imagery. She enters the painting as one would enter foreign worlds. Williams loses herself there and then resurfaces to find outward manifestations of the painting in ordinary life.
Fittingly enough, the structure of her book is based on the break-up of the Bosch painting she has set out to understand and elaborate upon. In “Paradise,” we find life’s wondrous multiplicity: birds, color and light, ideas that find form, knowledge that separates us from the inherent harmony of this world of ours, our home. In “Hell,” destroyed ecosystems, poisoned water, genetically engineered crops that kill, indescribable suffering. And in “Earthly Delights,” sensuous pleasure, temptation, joy, motion or as Williams puts it, “the Organic Trinity of Mineral, Vegetable and Animal.” Bosch’s painting is inhabited with naked half-human half-animal beings, humans with wings, birds that bear fruit in various shades of ecstasy and longing. What at first seems so strange becomes almost prophetic. Is this not reminiscent of the world we know; both the world within, its poles of content and despair and the world that surrounds us?
Williams, in a free-wheeling prose style that hops and skips between ideas, locations, moments, recollections and dreams, describes the intersection of an astonishingly perfect natural world (God’s creation?) with human turmoil, aspirations and concerns, struggling and hoping. It’s not surprising that art, whose sole function in the world is to seek and illuminate bowing to no authority but its own, provides Williams the means to pursue a passionate line of inquiry. It is surprising, however, that emerging from a background of religious orthodoxy, Leap manages to touch upon so much that is both frightening and invigorating.