|A middle-aged widower teaching at a small midwestern university becomes obsessed and enamored—is their any functional difference?—by an enigmatic woman half his age named Flower. Yup, I was thinking the exact same thing many women are probably thinking when given the bare premise of this short—129 page—novel. |
Q: Will middle-aged white authors never tire of writing novels about middle-aged white men becoming obsessed and enamored of enigmatic women half their age?
But on the way to rewriting another book based on one of the oldest cliches in the Book, Denis Johnson subverts the tired tropes and undermines just about all expectations to come up with something—if not entirely original—at least original enough to be memorable and worth the time to read. Especially at only 129 pages.
Here, according to Johnson's narrator, Mike Reed, is the situation in a nutshell:
= In the last few weeks, more had happened to me then I'd experienced in years—developing a small but impossible crush on a student, getting socked in the head, losing my job a year earlier than I'd expected, taking a pointless journey. I needed one more aberration, before I broke gently free and continued on a new path. I'd say I was almost conscious of needing it. Almost consciously looking for trouble.=
That trouble he's looking for—you think it's going to be Flower, because that's what it is in all novels of this type. But one good thing about The Name of the World is that Flower plays against type, belying Johnson's almost stereotypical hardboiled-type prose—and pose. She's not trying to mystify Mike and the closer he gets to her, the more he understands that she's a very real, if unconventional, person. That is to say, she's not a femme fatale. She's a real woman. Yes she poses partially nude, publicly shaving her pubes for an art performance, strips for prize-money in a casino's amateur striptease contest, but these are all things she does in a very matter-of-fact, practical way. Mike is predictably titillated, but, from Flower's point of view, his titillation is besides the point. Johnson gives Flower her own realty apart from Mike's fantasy about her—and that's what saves this novel from being just another sad horny middle-aged guy fantasy.
In fact, Mike—and Johnson—are conscious, too, of wanting something more than an ejaculation delayed and imagined. He says:
=I wanted something more than mere physical touch. Something unexpected. Something impossible to foresee.=
He says this several times throughout his narrative. What Mike wants, ultimately, is to be brought back to life—to be brought back to life or to be allowed to die—because as it is—since the death of his wife and daughter—he's been neither—existing in a gray limbo between the two states—unable to commit to one or the other.
It's in Flower's studio, among the clutter and detritus she collects for her work—unfinished paintings and assemblages that she keeps hidden—works that are "going nowhere, because I lack talent"—that Mike will find the unexpected thing he's been looking for.
But it has nothing to do with sex—in fact—surprise!—he never does fuck her—instead the unexpected thing is the origin—the secret story of her name—Flower—which she carefully guards from profanation—but which she feels she can entrust with Mike. Upon hearing her story, Mike is rocked, disoriented, staggered for reasons that at first he can't quite explain. He is connected to the current of his own grief, which, up to now, blew out the fuses connecting him to the power source of life. Suddenly, he experiences the adrenaline rush of being alive.
=Like the rider on an amusement, I had the strange satisfaction that it was all designed to be scary, to be fun, and would soon be over. I wondered if that meant I was going to die.=
In his heightened state, he's looking =for some deep violent conclusion—to have my heart torn out and eaten while I watched.=
He'll have one final violent encounter before the novel is through alright—but like his encounter with Flower—it won't be quite what he's expecting—nor what the reader expects—not apocalyptic—but apotheostic all the same—a thoroughly believable—because somewhat anticlimactic incident that—at least fictionally—we expect to be writ large—in violent red letters. Instead of dialing it up to eleven, Johnson keeps the action simmering at five—and then he reduces the temperature to warm and covers the pot—the way life plays out for the most part—outside of fiction, cooking us all the way through all the same. In the closing pages of The Name of the World Johnson plays against hype, hyperbole, and cliche one last time and surprises us with a resolution that is so calm and ordinary it packs the gut-punch of true revelation. Everything important happens while nothing seems to be happening at all.
Add to this, the beauty and exactitude of Johnson's spare, but hauntingly poetic prose and The Name of the World is a thin but powerful testament to survival—a kind of modern-day, godless Book of Ecclesiastes in which all is vanity but where it's still possible—even necessary—to experience life as the remarkable if pointless thing it is.