Friday, September 7, 2012

This is the Writer’s Mind on Drugs - more on Denis Johnson

As part of my adjudication in Writing School I get to write book reports! Actually they are called "Critical Response Papers" and so far in my case they read like papers that require Emergency Medical Response. Oxygen! Nurse! Get me some oxygen for this sentence I think it's about to shrivel up and die! Truth is I'm just trying to be clear and straightforward for a change, since these papers are not about how fucking clever I can be with the turn of a phrase, never mind the turn of an entire Limboland experience. But, after writing up a relatively serious observations about the self-publishing phenomenon and some real opinions I have about the great leveling of the quality of fiction, and then deleting that post in fear that it would be misinterpreted as critical of my own work, I am sick and tired of trying to act my age. 

So. I'm publishing the book report, as you can see, mainly 'cuz I think Denis Johnson deserves the attention of everybody that might wander through Limboland. But I promise after I push the publish button, I will ingest a few barrels of Orange Sunshine and return to our Limboland adventure in progress...because the Lap Doggy never sleeps.

This is The Writer’s Mind. This is the Writer’s Mind on Drugs. Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson – 1992 - Picador

 On the cover of Jesus’ Son it clearly states that these are “stories”, so you assume that’s how the author intended to position them. Certainly they “work” as stand-alone pieces. However as I writer in the nascent stages of putting together a new work of fiction, I was far more fascinated with the idea of the stories being loosely connected chapters in a novel. As a reader, I also found the experience more satisfying and fulfilling when I followed the common threads through the stories and pulled those threads together to form a single whole. Then, and only then, does this work become a complete and meaningful depiction of the life the professional substance abuser. (Interesting to note that the narrator, known only as “Fuckhead”,  doesn’t once use the phrase “substance abuse”, either because it’s too clinical or simply wasn’t a popular phrase when the book was written.)  

I also felt that these pieces were not what we would call “short stories”, as they lack many of the characteristics that are traditionally attributed to that genre. Instead I reacted to them as vignettes or a collection of scenes that when read in order form a somewhat linear story of a guy hitting bottom, going through detox, and finally in the last story riding the pink cloud of recovery. Most of the stories depict the narrator’s spiraling descent into drug-induced chaos, first in Iowa and then in Seattle, and ending with the ingestion of a “horse pill” that seems to put him in the hospital and the road to a shaky recovery.

Regardless of how the collection is viewed or read, each story is in itself a stark and vivid description of the world of the addict: his self-loathing; his visionary escapes; his objectification of women as just another drug that, in the end, become another addiction. Johnson is so masterful at embodying the life of the addict in the architecture of his writing, I find myself looking at words, sentences, paragraphs, and punctuation in a new, and different light. There are so many striking passages – some beautiful, some terrifying – that it’s difficult to choose those that exemplify all of Johnson’s unique inventiveness.

Johnson employs a consistent, singular point of view that is focused purely on events that the narrator – aka “Fuckhead” -  experiences first hand, either past or present. Fuckhead’s  direct involvement varies as well, from bystander to primary protagonist. This all results in a diary-like effect that feels very natural, except that in every vignette save the last, Fuckhead is either opiated, psychedelicized, amphetamined, drunk, and/or stoned.

So not surprisingly there is vivid description is of the drug-induced experience in almost every story, but my favorite was in Emergency, with the amiably dangerous “Georgie” at Fuckhead’s side:  

“We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldier’s graves. Id’ never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my head and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.

Georgie opened his arms and cried out, ‘It’s the drive-in, man!’” (Emergency, p. 67)

While it’s possible to imagine that one could mistake a drive-in theater for a military graveyard in a heavy snowstorm, what “Fuckhead” describes is a “pants messing” hallucination that is as frightening as it is hilarious.

Johnson is also the expert at characterizing sudden flashes of heightened perception: “What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined and eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere”. (Car Crash While Hitchhiking p. 9) What’s really odd about the narrator’s reaction here is that the women is shrieking to learn of her husband’s death, and the narrator feels “wonderful to be alive to hear it”.  Powerful juxtaposition such as this characterizes Johnson’s finely tuned, honed and stark presentation throughout Jesus’ Son.

Johnson puts women in the same category as drugs –drugs that can be good, for awhile, but then backfire. After “fuckhead” punches his girlfriend in the stomach on the sidewalk and she is picked up by the car full of college kids, his description of the feeling of losing her is similar to what he might feel going cold turkey: “I remember lonliness crushing first my lungs, then my heart, then my balls.” By the last story he has become addicted to women, and he likens his OCD behavior to his days on the street:

“The spring was on and the days were getting longer. I missed my bus often, waiting to spy on the wife in the town-house apartment.

How could I do it, how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse.” (Technically page number goes here. Oh shit. My teacher is going to kick my ass!)

There are a couple of things going on in this passage that grabbed me. First is the recognition that a while a Peeping Tom may be disgusting, it’s not nearly as disgusting as what he had done in the past and what he expected to do in the future. “Fuckhead’s” is a fucked up recovery, that, like band aids applied to seething boil, is sure to erupt in a dramatic and possibly final denouement. The second is how innocently and naturally he brings the reader into his story. First it seems he’s talking to himself: “How could I do it, how could a person go that low?” Then, almost as if he has stepped outside of himself: “And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding?” The out of place capital A in Are suggests that there should be a new sentence with quotations. But there isn’t. It’s left dangling. He’s talking to himself. He’s talking to you. Are you talkin’ to me? I can help but think of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver when I read this passage.

Finally, Johnson’s use of metaphor is consistently striking and unusual, because he stays true to the POV of “Fuckhead”, and “Fuckhead” as we know is on drugs. Part of the appeal of drugs is, as with the military graveyard drive-in theater, their ability to help one see beyond the surface. “…we drove out of town where the fields bunched up into hills and then dipped down toward a cool river mothered by benevolent clouds.” Would not the opiated, encased in the pillowy safety of dope, see the river as safe, welcoming, well-intentioned, like Mom?” A warm and fuzzy opiate high would to produce warm and fuzzy images: “Willows stroked the water with their hair.”  Almost corny but perfectly fitting.  

As with Train Dreams, there is much for the writer to learn from Johnson. First, rather obviously and like all good fiction, his stories operate on many levels. This speaks to the power of the content, in and of itself; the events and actions that comprise the scenes; the characters, whether they are human, animal, or natural; the multitude of meanings. Johnson then takes this amazing content and delivers it so that it arrests the reader and forces his attention. My theory is that it is primarily through careful choice of resonant language, constructed into sentences the way Miles Davis might construct a solo: long, slow, cascading, then short, fast and punchy, that Johnson distinguishes his stories. It is also his frequent use of mind-bending juxtaposition, often within the same sentence (see example from Car Crash While Hitchhiking p. 9)  

With Jesus’ Son, I was so enthralled by the content that I hardly noticed the writing, which to me is what happens when the author gets it right. The words create images so vivid in your mind that the type on the page falls away and, as if dreaming, you become part of the story; the witness standing in the shadows with his hands in his pockets, watching.  This may be because, as an avid drug enthusiast in high school and later a professional musician, I could see the world that Johnson describes from where I sat, but never actually went there. It’s far better from this even safer distance: the middle-aged family man, starting to look askance at the peach on the windowsill, weighing the risks of a second glass of wine. I assume Fuckhead is perhaps Mr. Johnson himself, and all I can say is I’m glad he made it out alive. 

Wasnt' that just fucking fascinating?" Don't you want to rush out and read Jesus' Son this afternoon?

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