Annotation by Kate Maruyama
Denis Johnson is a raw nerve exposed to the world, hyperaware of the little things that make up the scattershot of life. He is deeply involved in every person who stumbles into his main character’s life or who he watches from afar (and sometimes uncomfortably close). While his every observation is a reflection of himself, it is deeply insightful. He moves in different paces and approaches in his observation. Some characters he can sum up in two lines of acute perception (the various and sundry in “Happy Hour”), others he shows us through dialogue (Georgie), others take up residence and worm their ways into our consciousness (“Two Men”). His descriptions of the world around our characters ebb and flow, surrounding us (descriptions of Seattle, the Puget Sound) or remaining shadowy to bring the people he is describing into relief.
“Emergency” creates a very cool tension by starting in the intensely claustrophobic world of the emergency room with that horrible hilarious description of the guy with the knife in his eye. How Georgie and our hero react tells us a lot about them (their dialogue is beyond great). When they hit the road and start to wander, the uncertainty of their journey as well as their lack of a grasp on their surroundings gains more tension from their time spent in the close and very identifiable ER. Time slowed to a crawl in there, once they are outside there is this lost, haphazard feel to things. Totally different genre, but my main character is about to leave his building for the first time in my novel and I hope to somehow bring that tension to his venture back into the ordinary world. This gives me an idea of the disjointedness that time will take on once he leaves, and I want the reader to feel the urgency of time passing while he is away. Funerals are all day events, which become their own world, much like weddings and usually have receptions after. I do want to make it all kinds of awful but “Emergency” gives me some guidelines for how to make the space feel broad and hard to get a handle on.
The stories move in an artfully random fashion, Johnson gives off the goofy air of someone just sharing snippets with you, but in reality, he is really in control not only of each line of prose, but the reader’s passage through it. Phenomenal.
He is a genius of juxtaposition. He can put together two different ideas with two sentences next to each other so that they become something entirely new. “Happy Hour”, (such an amazing story with as many layers as a Basquiat painting) has a lot of this from paragraph to paragraph, and from scene to scene, but my favorite two sentences put together are about Angelique, “There was a part of her she hadn’t yet allowed to be born because it was too beautiful for this place, that was true. But she was mostly a torn-up trollop.” Moving, clever and funny. I don’t know if this is something that can be created artificially, but it is a reminder to entertain those random thoughts that come in while writing from one point of view. Sometimes the absurd makes the ordinary more tangible.
“Beverly Home” is a wonderful mix-up of the various styles of observation Johnson has exercised in the book thus far. His contact with the gorgeous dysfunction of the residents of Beverly Home is staggering. He fully describes a young guy taken down by multiple sclerosis, abandoned by his wife, left to live out his days in his wheelchair “clamping his lips repeatedly around his protruding tongue while groaning.” Johnson moves on to the next line and paragraph, perkily stating, “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” It totally killed me. Where many look the other way or try to gloss over unpleasantness, Johnson looks more closely and finds more beauty than is remotely possible in the world of the pleasant. The story has many other such moments, but then cuts to his life outside the hospital, his perfunctory observation of his relationship with a dwarf, interspersed with his slow, languorous look into the life of an Amish woman and her husband. All three of these techniques are intercut and build like music ending in a stunning closing paragraph that brings it together, how he was getting well among the weirdos. But the story is larger than his conclusion. It stays with you.
This collection crept up on me, I didn’t know where I was, then I started just enjoying it, but by the end, I had become an avid follower. It’ll probably take a few more years of writing and a few more reads to sort out what this first read accomplished.