shining the spotlight on short story collections
Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
Published by Random House, January 2018
“It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.“
About the author: Denis Johnson was the author of nine novels, one novella, two books of short stories, five collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, and Train Dreams was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.
Since the cult success of his 90s collection Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson has been recognised as a writer’s writer and a master of the American short story. His voice-driven stories find poetry in the profane and profundity in the everyday. Focussing on the forgotten underclasses of the American heartland, these stories are populated with the kinds of fallen men who wouldn’t be out of place in a country song— Johnson writes with Johnny Cash grit and a bit of John Prine wit. The five stories that make up The Largesse of the Sea Maiden range from mental institutions to Graceland, from ad men to convicts. Despite the varying characters and settings, all these stories focus on the past and how we remember it. Bill Whitman, the narrator of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, has “more to remember than [he has] to look forward to.” And in Doppelgänger, Poltergeist, Johnson writes:
The Past just left. Its remnants, I claim, are mostly fiction. We’re stranded here with the threadbare patchwork of memory, you with yours, I with mine.
Johnson’s narrators wear away at this “threadbare patchwork of memory”: years collapse in on themselves, memories become stories. But the narrators are constantly trying to convince you that there is no fiction in their retellings; one says: “If you think I’m bullshitting, kiss my ass. My story is the amazing truth.” Another says: “Please don’t ask me how this can be true”. The reader might indeed wonder how many of these stories can be true, but Johnson works best when reality verges on the absurd. His characters search for moments of magic in the monotony of their daily lives.
As an aspiring writer, reading Johnson’s prose can be disheartening. Its effects are profound and moving, yet his stories are near impossible to decode. There are no signs of structure or artifice, these stories don’t adhere to tried and tested forms, they read as if spoken in one long breath. As Whitman puts it —in this case talking about an advert rather than a story— “this one broke the rules, and it worked.” While two of the five stories are about writers, it is hard to find evidence of the writer behind them. This is testament to Johnson’s ability to fully embody the voice of his characters —all of these stories are written in the first person. To read a story like The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is to watch Johnson pull thread after thread of the “patchwork of memory”; one narrative unravelling into another until, by the end of the story, in a tangle of tangents, the strings are pulled taut.
To read these stories is to give up control and surrender yourself to the rhythms of Johnson’s writing. Having published five collections of poetry, Johnson has a keen ear for a good sentence. One character is told he’ll “end up buried in a strange town with your name spelled wrong on your grave”, another imagines an ex-girlfriend “poking around in her stool for my broken heart”. One line that perhaps best captures the tone of the collection and the mastery of Johnson’s writing comes in the aptly titled Triumph Over the Grave:
I’d expected to wait in the anteroom among the sick and wounded and their loved ones bent over mystifying paperwork or staring down at their hands, beaten at last not by life but by the refusal of their dramas to end in anything but this meaningless procedural quicksand …
The “mystifying paperwork” and “procedural quicksand” show Johnson at his kafkaesque best but also the book’s preoccupation with sickness and death. It is hard to read a line like this without thinking of the fact that Johnson finished the collection shortly before he died. Death weighs heavy on these characters; they are more often than not sick and dying, taking stock of their lives. The inmates in Strangler Bob, for example, occupy a purgatory of sorts. By the end of the story, the main protagonists are so fully enlivened by Johnson that the final full stop acts as a kind of death. Generally, Johnson writes death in these stories with tenderness and tact. At other times, his hard, journalistic gaze can have devastating effects:
My father died. Mark’s mother died. My mother died. Mark’s father died. As soon as he was orphaned, Mark dove deep into women: six years, three marriages.
At first, lines like these are a joy to read, but when they keep cropping up throughout the collection they start to show how Johnson continually fails to write three-dimensional, or at least, partly-developed female characters. Throughout The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, women are peripheral, superfluous characters. These are stories written by a man, narrated by men, about other men. Halfway through the same story, we are told “the bare facts: Anne and I divorced and sold the Wellfleet house, and Anne moved to Spain.” ‘Who the hell is Anne?’, I found myself thinking, but that is all the information about her that Johnson saw fit to include. The only other female character in Doppelgänger, Poltergeist (a story which is fifty pages long) is “Mrs. Exroy, a plump, diligently pleasant older southern widow”. When female characters are mentioned in the collection, it is for their physical appearance or their sexual relation to the male protagonist. They are literary tools that Johnson uses to explore Sexuality with a capital “S”, written forgettably and irritably. The misogyny of Johnson’s writing is worsened by his technical mastery. How could a writer so brilliantly describe mortality and the human condition and fail to include one well-written female character in a 200 page book? He writes less of the human condition than the male condition. Many readers see his stories as criticisms of toxic masculinity— the male characters are, to be fair, all unhappy. But, to me, Johnson’s failure is all too familiar amongst great writers. In collections like this, Johnson’s taut prose can be compared with the likes of Hemingway, Carver or Cheever. But it is similarly problematic. While the great white men of the American short story —and I really would include Johnson as one of them— near perfected the 20th century short story, the form is diversifying —both in terms of the writing and the writers.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a brilliantly written and moving, if sombre, read. Fans of Jesus’ Son will find something to love here, as too, I’m sure, will readers new to Denis Johnson. Since his death, Johnson has been praised by all sides of the literary world —the New Republic called him “the best American writer of the past 25 years.” This praise is well-deserved, if a little hyperbolic, but marks an important shift in the literary climate. Writers like Johnson have reached their peak of relevance and it is now time for different voices to develop the short story form. I’m sure Johnson will remain a writer’s writer and, while imitations are inevitable, I hope readers will acknowledge both the power and the limitations of his work.
About the reviewer: Gurnaik Johal is an English with Creative Writing student at The University of Manchester.