Short Fiction Notes: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

In this book of stories Johnson specializes in the narcotic grotesque. The basic message of these stories is that people do terrible things to each other, especially when drunk or stoned. People run each other over and shoot each other, but all without meaning any harm, without affect. Or, the affect is one of impotent desperation. All of the pieces in this collection — some of which are very short — are told in the first person and (mostly) by the the same first person narrator, a drunk and an addict and a petty thief. Minor characters and settings reappear from story to story. “Emergency” is the centerpiece here and has been anthologized widely. By itself, this story feels like not much more than an account of two guys who work in a hospital completely fucked up on drugs, first at work then after work. But in the context of the other stories, which flesh out the speaker and central character, “Emergency” takes on a kind of down and out grace. The other “big” story in the collection is the final one, “Beverly Home,” in which the speaker — the same person as in the earlier stories — is a recovering herion addict who works part-time in an “old folks home” producing the bi-monthly newsletter. But this final story is not about to present the reader with an easy path to redemption; the speaker, when not producing his chirpy newsletter, spends his time secretly looking through the windows of an Amish couple and it is during one of these perverse peeping sessions that he discovers the very difficulty requirements of redemption and forgivness. [New York Magazine profile of Johnson here. Another here.]

End of Term Blues

Just finished grading my last set of papers & now I’m on sabbatical until next September. The papers brought me up short, I must admit. They were from a freshman class and we had finished the semester reading Margret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a very smart & entertaining book, I think. My students seemed to like it too, but their papers were, with only a few exceptions, dismal. I have to take some of the blame for this, though, because I should have gone over the basics of evolution with them before turning them loose on a novel about the hazards of genetic engineering for fun & pleasure. Many of them went wrong by assuming that evolution is teleological, i.e., that it leads inevitably to us. Others fouled up by assuming the meaning of “natural” to be self-evident. But the most breathtaking move — which showed up several times — was importing an entire metaphysics unexamined into an argument with a single sentence: We were put on earth for a reason. By whom & for what was never mentioned. What my students were really saying, I think, is something like “the world makes sense” — a rejection of nihilism. That rejection might have been a good start, but I didn’t get the chance to move them along since this was the final essay in the semester.

Actually, I’m dissatisfied with the way I have structured the course. I like the content I’ve worked up since we rennovated the curriculum three years ago — the authentic individual in a social context, the problems of establishing justice — but the wriing element isn’t really working. I’ve always just assigned four 3-5 page essays with opportunity for infinite revisions, but most of the essays turned in are essentially rough drafts. So when I go back to this class next year I’m going to make some changes.

  1. I’ll reduce the nmber of major texts and supplement them with critical essays. I’ve been using Graff’s little handbook They Say / I Say & when I can get them to adopt its methods, my students are better writers. (I’m also looking at a similar book, Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, but it seems aimed more at advanced writers of academic prose.) But I have to do more in class with this “entering the conversation” trope. In fact, I have to have workshop sessions using student writing. So:
  2. I’m going to assign six two-page essays starting in week one, with one final essay of 5-6 pages that develops some idea from earlier writing. We will use these two-pagers in class to discuss the various kinds of moves you can make in writing. Basically, I’ll do what I do in my creative writing workshops.
  3. Possible book list: The Book of Job (Mitchell translation), Utopia (More), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Oryx & Crake (Atwood), along with a simple text on evolution and a pocket style guide. [Great video here of Atwood discussing her novel.]

Some Questions about Vietnamese Poetry

As I prepare to go to Vietnam in the spring, I have been in contact with friends there, asking them about poetry in contemporary Vietnam. Part of my project involves interviewing Vietnamese poets and that means thinking of the sorts of questions I want to ask. I know a bit about the history of Vietnam and its literature, particularly in the 20th century, but I want to know how that history is affecting the making of poems now, in the first decade of the 21st century. Here is a first pass at some questions, or pre-questions — the sort of questions I need to ask in order to find out what the real questions are:

  1. Who are the most interesting poets now working in Vietnam?
  2. To what extent is contemporary Vietnamese poetry connected to the poetry of the past?
  3. What is the nature of the connection, to the extent that it exists?
  4. Do contemporary poets make use of the extensive folk traditions, for example, of Ca Dao?
  5. What has been the effect of urbanization of Vietnamese poetry over the last twenty years or so?
  6. Have the changes in the Vietnamese economy over the last generation affected Vietnamese poets?
  7. Are there marked generational differences among younger and older Vietnamese poets?
  8. To what extent are Vietnamese poets aware of and interested in poetries in other languages?

Those are the questions I’ll be asking poets I already know as I get ready to go to Vietnam; presumably, these questions will lead to others that are more detailed and take into account the individual situations of the writers I’ll be meeting. If anyone happens by this space who has answers to the questions posed above, please feel free to chime in.