JANUARY 24, 2018
IN THE LAST LINES of “Triumph Over the Grave,” the fourth story in this excellent short story collection, Denis Johnson writes, “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.” This is the sort of passage that defies the line between fiction and autobiography, between narrator and author. Johnson died last year from liver cancer, and given the humor and wisdom of much of his previous work, it seems fitting that he would make a wry observation on his own mortality from beyond the grave, a maneuver that constitutes a kind of “triumph.”
Sometimes when reading the obituary of a writer, the praise by which he or she is invariably described seems outdated; this was not the case with Denis Johnson. The expressions of love on social media and in columns of literary journals and newspapers around the country showed the outpouring of a very current appreciation. His National Book Award–winning short story collection, Jesus’ Son, has been recognized as one of the essential American texts of the past 30 years. Reading the Twitter elegies and articles mourning his death, one got the sense that this was a book that lived on the nightstands of many readers well into the 21st century.
It’s easy to become torn between two impulses reviewing the posthumously published book of such a widely beloved author. On the one hand, one wants to read the work strictly on its own merits and without too much consideration of the circumstances surrounding it. On the other, how is this possible? Questions about the work acting as a sort of end cap to Johnson’s career lurk everywhere behind the more conventional critique. However, that problem does not impugn much upon The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and this is for two reasons.
First, the stories here are so explicitly conscious of death that considering them not only as the final chapter of the author’s oeuvre, but also as a commentary on the last days of the author’s life, seems essential. The lines quoted above are no aberration. The entire collection pointedly meditates on death, loss, and failure. That fact somehow relieves the pressure of reading the work cleanly, so to speak, by placing it apart from the author’s biography.
Second, the stories are so strong that there’s no worry that matters outside the text could crowd out their effect, even when real-world events insinuate as strongly as they do here. The conflict between the two readings instead becomes another layer, two parallel themes running underneath it all.
I’m reminded of Stanley Fish’s take on Paradise Lost, his contention that the hesitation to attribute hero status to Satan is itself a performance of the inward consciousness of sin that the poem is meant to rehearse. The same kind of dynamic is at play here, where different readings coalesce into something bigger. One shifts between an interpretation of these stories as a free-standing fiction, and as a culmination of real-world moments — not where the vacillation between the two muddies the hermeneutical act but where they carry forward the central theme of grief, the way death itself evokes loss of orientation. This meta-theme of synchronic and diachronic time reconciled in the act of death persists here like a pulsing drone beneath the narrative action.
But this could be misleading. To say the work is preoccupied with death makes it sound overly ponderous or dour; this is far from the case. These are gorgeous, honest, funny stories. When an author becomes famous enough, he writes less within the context of current trends as against the expectations set by his own body of work. But even by Johnson’s own high standard, these stories soar. Part of their brilliance lay, as already mentioned, in their powerful meditation on the commonplace of defeat — in exploring the question of what death can claim and what it cannot. But the other part is that they’re written with such verve and originality that it almost doesn’t matter what they’re about. One forgets the weight of the subject matter in the joy of the prose.
Johnson’s writing, here and elsewhere, homes in on the experience of the present moment. His subjects are often down-and-out characters, drug abusers, vagabonds, prisoners, people on the fringe. But these fringe-dwellers act as a sort of synecdoche for the immediacy of human experience itself. His prose telegraphs an infectious sense of nowness. It feels both urgent and untroubled. It’s easy for the reader to breathe and live in his world; when moments of unexpected drama appear, as they do perhaps more frequently than in stories with more conventional narrative temporality, their effect is easily felt. Drama happens in a Denis Johnson story with all the humor and random cruelty of real life.
But as much his work exudes a meditative nowness, his sense of now is not uncomplicated. The moment is always haunted by memory. Johnson writes about neither the past nor the present. He writes about the present memory of the past, replete with all manner of reflection and revision.
The first story of the collection, and that from which the book takes its name, begins with a dinner party. An aging ad man living in San Diego tells the tale of a successful get-together among friends that takes an unfortunate turn. During the post-dinner conversation, the subject of silence comes up, and everyone in the group talks about the most profound silence they had experienced.
Johnson characteristically veers from drama to comedy in these micro-vignettes. “One said it was his wife’s voice when she told him she didn’t love him anymore.” Another “said it hurt his ears whenever his brother opened his mouth in public, because his brother had Tourette’s syndrome and erupted with remarks like ‘I masturbate! Your penis smells good!’ in front of perfect strangers on a bus.”
The heady mixture of drama and comedy sets the tone for what’s next. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan tells of the silence after he was wounded: “He said the most silent thing he’d ever heard was the land-mine taking off his right leg outside Kabul.” Another member of the party asks to see his wound, and the veteran agrees to show her only if she kisses it. This round of stories about silence yields its own awkward silence as the woman succumbs to the peer pressure of the rest of the group, but then breaks down crying before she can go through with the kiss.
But Johnson isn’t done scaffolding layers of thematic meaning here. The anecdotes of the individual members of the dinner party expand into the story of the party itself, which then kicks off the main narrative movement of the story: the narrator’s reflection on his life. “This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life — the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms — that I almost crashed the car.”
These silences grow in the reader’s mind. Each moment in the story carries meaning in relation to the previous, but this meaning is not spelled out in abstractions but through the deliberate juxtaposition of moments carrying meaning as the reader assigns it.
Denis Johnson has been called a stylist, but this is wrong: his writing is more reflective of voice than style. Less than a “stream of consciousness,” which suggests a sort of stylized index of current lived experience, Johnson’s prose curates such through a finely honed, even disciplined, sense of who the central character is and what matters to that person. He prunes as readily as he effuses. He writes directly to a literate reader — one who comes to the table already familiar with the various stylizations available to the short prose form, and Johnson switches between them, parodies them, or avoids them altogether.
Just as the protagonist of one of the stories in this collection, “Doppleganger, Poltergeist,” speaks of dropping his “poet’s persona” to “masquerade […] as a literary critic,” Denis Johnson’s prose puts on stylistic masks and then takes them off. His work is a facsimile of the process of writing, rather than its product. What emerges from the exercise is not the fact of masking, or some grotesque pantomime of honesty personified, but the honesty of the impulse to hide oneself.
Of the five stories in this collection, “Triumph Over the Grave” showcases the collection’s recurring motif of death and defeat most explicitly. The failures depicted here are not heroic, nor usually dramatic in any way. We see several deaths, but they happen in advanced age, after long illnesses. We see characters finding their rock bottoms, but no road-to-Damascus epiphany awaits them. If they find solace, it’s within the context of lowered expectations.
These failures and missed opportunities have everything to do with the aforementioned intersection of diachronic and synchronic time — the theme of nowness versus a culmination of thens. Johnson seems to suggest that the present moment can act as a bulwark against the pain of the past. Loss and failure can never be final, because they end, annihilated into the ever-expiring now. Likewise, the present holds infinite opportunity to relegate its power to that of memory and reflection, a lens through which to see the real truth. This dance between present and past is the space within which Johnson builds his world.
There’s the heartbreaking episode in “Triumph Over the Grave” where the narrator’s friend, Link, languishes on his deathbed in wait for the love of his life to visit before the end. She comes finally, accompanied by her husband. A sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease, Liz remembers no one in her life except Link, her ex-husband, but she arrives too late for them to speak to one another. At other times, deaths happen offstage, related secondhand, as when the ad man narrator of the book’s eponymous story meets the son of a friend and former colleague in a public bathroom and is promptly told his friend is dead. These variations on the theme of loss, and the slow decline of time, matter less than their overarching tenor.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a great collection of stories, full of humor and sadness and truth. It reminds us how much we’ve lost with the death of its author, as well as what that loss means.