"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

Here's a thing about me: I get really nervous about the idea of BAD people. You know, the folks on the news who do whatever terrible thing gets picked up each week. In practice, I figure that everyone I meet is basically good enough... but bad people are theoretical folks, who live in TV land (not to be confused with TVLand) and potentially my otherwise-normal-seeming neighborhood, and I'm sure there's enough people on the planet for some of us to be beyond understanding and awful.

Which is all to say that I tend to sidestep novels about really bad people. I mean, unlikable people? Love it. But anyone who's violent towards innocent people? No. Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son is about some not-so-great peeps. Homeless, violent, addicted, uneducated, angry etc. You get the idea. The narrator is unnamed and sort of drifts from one awful place to another.

A homeless man yesterday said some absolutely beautiful nonsense to me. He told me that black-holes are "nests of us," and galaxies happen when "god pulls out their innards like spaghetti," because "we are his food" and "we need to kill that motherfucker." I told him I thought that was beautiful, but I think he was hoping to shock me, because he got a little aggressive after that.

But part of the reason I loved it is that I felt like I was living Jesus' Son, which is a beautiful book. Here's a paragraph from the first story/chapter:

Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn't know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That's what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated  there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere

I don't want to get too much into it, but what differentiates prose fiction from other narrative art forms like TV and movies is its ability to get around behind the eyes of someone else and show the reader, "This is how he or she sees it all." Even the best HBO show can't do that (though, duh, it can do a lot of things that a novel can't do).

And, anyway, good job Jesus' Son. Really, really great book.

I've got some big news coming here in the next month!

Oh, I also read Turn of the Screw by Henry James and it was pretty good!

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