Recently I’ve started to wonder how and why fiction works. Actually, I first started to wonder about this about 20 years ago, when I first joined the adult branch of the county library and without any proper transition period after children’s books, I started to read books which probably weren’t at all appropriate for my age, and which soon shook my naïve, childish ideas about how books are and can be written.
Several years passed since then, but through all those years, it has never occurred to me to try to look up the answer to the question of how fiction works online. A while back, however, in a free moment, I tried what happens if I ask Google how fiction works. It seems the question intrigues others, too – turns out there’s even a book with this title, by James Wood.
As I had further free moments at my disposal, I looked up this book – could it be the one that answers my big question? Could it be a good read for me, perhaps one fine day when I don’t feel like reading fiction, but I feel like reading about fiction. (It’s impossible for me not to feel like reading about fiction.)
So I read an entertaining and gently sarcastic review about Wood’s book (this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/books/review/Kirn-t.html?_r=1), which convinced me that I probably won’t (and don’t want to) learn the answer from James Wood. But – the author of this wonderful review happened to mention this book by Denis Johnson, claiming it’s a messy masterpiece. I’ve never heard about this book or Denis Johnson before, but my curiosity was immediately kindled. I happen to love messy masterworks a lot.
And now I’m so glad because Denis Johnson’s slightly connected short stories didn’t only blow my mind (I kept re-reading the stories even while I was reading the book), but they also taught me a lot about how fiction works. Or rather: I learned (again) that lots of things can work in fiction, and that there are no rules. Which is pretty encouraging.
Like I said, these stories are connected, but only in the sense that they take place more or less at the same place and same time, and they are all narrated by the same person. The narrator is nameless, but we learn that he’s known as Fuckhead to his friends. And we learn a couple of other details about him: that he’s in his twenties, he’s an alcoholic and a heroin-addict, that he is married and has girlfriends on the side, that he doesn’t refrain from aimless, unplanned violence (he doesn’t have plans and goals, anyway, and in most cases, he only thinks about violence), that he’s completely lost in the world, and that he has a heightened sense and appreciation of beauty. And – indirectly, and hopefully – we also learn that most probably he managed to survive his wild years, because sometimes he writes in a way that suggests that he’s looking back from a more mature age to the period when the non-stories take place.
The non-stories are centered around simple and/or brutal events, start in medias res, and usually end in nothing (and nothingness). In one story, for example, the narrator accompanies his girlfriend to the abortion clinic, and then takes the train to travel up and down in the city because he has nowhere to go. In another story he runs into an old drinking buddy who offers him a bit of work – so they go and steal the cables from an abandoned house, and then go on drinking with the money they made. And in another one the narrator and his buddy decide to split from the hospital where they work, and they go for a drive around the city, kill (a rabbit), save lives (the lives of bunnies, for example), get lost and see angels in the September snow – but then it turns out that the angels are, in fact, the shadows of actors on the screen of an open-air cinema.
How and why this is good – I have no idea. Words are put one after the other in a way that it’s good. I think – literature is like this, at its best.
But I can’t rest – how and why is this good?
Perhaps it’s good because of its shamelessness. These short stories are shameless. Drunk or drugged up hallucinations; paranoid fear of the real nature of things; melancholy musings about the sadness and unknowability of the world; the wild desire for beauty; the hopelessness of the days where all you do is wait for happy hour; the feeling of youthful invincibility; absolute helplessness and lethargy; unexpected tenderness and equally unexpected cruelty – these are all here, simultaneously. And all these are here as a matter of fact. No need for explanations. No need for apologies.
And this is one reason why it’s good. Because of the lack of explanations. The temptation to explain things away, to be logical and consistent is hard to resist. Johnson resists, which is awesome. Here it’s quite possible that in a moment of extraordinary tenderness you’re cradling little bunnies on your belly, making plans to feed them with sugary milk until they grow up – and then in the next moment or hour (perhaps after a drugged blackout) you find that you fucking forgot about the bunnies and accidentally crushed them to death.
I’m amazed by this – that Johnson dares to be just as fucked up as his narrator. That here it’s not a question of life versus literature, but literature equals life.
Which is, by the way, not always sad, miserable, and tragic. From time to time, this book is extremely funny, and not just from time to time but very often it’s beautiful and poetic.
And, again by the way – Denis Johnson is the writer who can capture whole lives in a single parenthetical clause:
(through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a – wham, the noise and dark dropped around your head – tunnel)
And being a devoted fan of parenthetical clauses, this is one more reason I feel deeply in awe of him.