Monday, October 22, 2007

Angels, by Denis Johnson

angels denis johnsonI finished this raw, powerful novel this evening at the library in Fairfield and drove home, wondering what to say about it. I have a tough time writing about fiction like this—novels or stories that deal with people of few ideas, spare words, and that peculiar sense of harsh beauty that comes from the authenticity of a life lived hard and self-destructively.

It's not that I don't appreciate these authors or their books; I'm not a huge fan of someone who employs these tropes in a maximalist way, à la Burroughs (although I don't mind Henry Miller, strangely), nor am I particularly keen on writers who seem to write in this manner mainly (or merely) for the sake of the notion that their art gives them a mandate to act in a manner that combines foolishness, boorishness, and over-assertive pretentiousness (basically anyone who cites Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson as an influence—e.g. most male creative writing majors). But I'm a big fan of Raymond Carver, and as I've recently discovered, Junot Díaz, both of whom, I feel, write about these kind of people extremely well.

I can write about fastidious old men rather well, I think, especially if they're white—a fact which depresses me greatly. The ability to describe writers like Denis Johnson, or books like Angels, is, however, mostly lost on me. So in order to have something to say, I suppose I may take the recourse of comparing Johnson to a much older writer whom I think I may be able to write about.

The inspiration—tiny as it is—struck as I looked down at the passenger-side car mat as I got out of the car. There lay, amid a few leaves and an empty Dunkin Donuts styrofoam cup, the book-on-tape I've put on hold for awhile until I decide I can forge through the ending which is already threatening to bore me into an accident: Lord Jim.

Like Conrad, Denis Johnson writes about severely self-destructive people. And like the experience of reading Conrad, there are moments of pure incredulity while reading Johnson, moments when you must pause to ask yourself, "How can anyone write this well?" These moments are, on the other hand, preceded and in some instances surrounded by stretches of rather lugubrious (though in starkly different ways) exposition. However, for both writers I would argue that the languor of these patches is what creates the high intensity of the sublime moments. For it is not, in either writer's case, that the writing suddenly falls apart—a sentence from either writer's more plodding parts can be as beautiful on its own as a sentence from the most thrilling moments. There is a slackness, however, to the non-sublime sections, an etiolation or a lull. And in both cases, I believe this effect is produced if not knowingly, at least purposefully, for it mimics the larger rhythm of experience for these characters.

For Conrad, it is the tempo of a sea voyage—intermittent perils of flashing terror and frightening beauty, but dwarfed by the immensity of a long sea voyage's natural listlessness. For Johnson, it is something like the effect of hard drugs, I imagine, although this analogy breaks down as Johnson's slower sections don't seem to arced toward the action, aren't coiled in the pain of withdrawal or tense in the search for the next hit. But Angels follows in its tempo the path of one becoming addicted to speed, then breaking up or down and "recovering"—a process which is more shock than assurance. The first third of the novel—which I guess could be called the "sober" third—is flat but a fairly good rendition of dirty realism. The middle third is kinetic, but not trippy—things are sharpened, not fuzzed out. The latter third is broken by shifts and shocks, with a somber undertone of great regret and stoic uncertainty about what has happened, or will.

In some ways, this kind of novel is for our late capitalist society what the sea novel was for late last century's genteel classes. Tales of drugs and petty crime yield both a jolt of insouciance and a meaningful commentary on "respectable" society (funny how that word needs scare-quotes to protect it from laughter now, where once they would have been mere mockery of the idea)—and these are exactly the things one got from a late nineteenth century tale of the sea. And if this comparison holds water (no pun intended), I would argue once again, and more forcefully, that Johnson is our Conrad, a master of the form, a writer of rare and fearsome power whose rough precision with language sets him well apart from his peers.

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