The Name of the World: Denis Johnson and the Academic Novel(la)


Perhaps it’s a cosmic message delivered through the medium of literature, or just pure coincidence, but of late much of what I am reading relates to the occupation and amusements of academic life. Not an uncommon approach, since many fiction writers too are/were academics themselves, it is nonetheless an intriguing genre in itself to see the academic at odds with the world of fiction, or the writer having to navigate the duplicitous paths of peer-reviewed academia and free flowing fiction.

An academic novel, also known as a ‘campus novel’ is regarded by John Lyons as one in which “higher education is treated with seriousness and the main characters are students or professors” (1962: xvii). There are countless examples of these, (DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995), to name a couple) and they are indeed an interesting if not darkly comic breed of book, especially for the aspiring writers/pseudo-academics. In high school, many teenagers unfortunately grow to hate literature, and before their superiors can shake their heads in shame, it is often due to the simple fact that it is studying too close for comfort. We strip films and literature down to their naked core to the point where its enjoyability seems impossible. This is, at least, the case for those who end up shunning university altogether.

A relatively recent author, Denis Johnson, follows suit, portraying the life of an academic who is lamenting and coping with the death of his wife and daughter in The Name of the World (2001). His protagonist, Michael Reed, is a disconnected though not entirely unaffected professor. Despite the position he holds and the sociability he is capable of, he is ghost-like, drifting, spending large quantities of time observing the students skating over the frozen pond at the college or laboriously and poetically describing the change in seasons, while aimlessly walking about the town. As such, the novella can be, at times, very psychogeographic, the streets he drifts about undoubtedly affecting his conscious in arcane, elusive manners.

I took each step entirely out of a dull curiosity, not as to what waited ahead, because I didn’t care, but as to whether or not I could take one more step. I hadn’t found much else to interest me along the way. At the risk of stretching the illustration, I can say I sometimes came to turnings in the darkness and wondered if this were a labyrinth (17).

The effect of returning, often, to the place where his loved ones were killed, is strangely transcribed into his mind, fictional universes and possibilities opening up. Less attention is paid on the life of an academic itself, though it acts as a central, yet simultaneously peripheral role, both core and secondary. The fluctuating nature of the industry, illustrated against the virtues of its ‘brains and intellectuals’ is a curious contrast. The breed of person academia produces is an underappreciated element of the story. Reed is mentally reclusive, observant, and yet this observation often seems to be irrelevant, or useless to Reed himself, aimless observations and wanderings.

While not his best work (Already Dead (1998) and Jesus’ Son (1992) are good contenders), Johnson’s Name of the World certainly delivers on the peculiarities and sexual tension often associated with such a conflicted industry. Reed becomes obsessed with redheaded Flower Cannon, a cellist, artist, stripper and student who attends the same college. Reed’s rapturous obsession grows, and slowly shakes off the emotional paralysis he suffers:

Suddenly I said, “She shaves her pussy.”

His cigarette stopped just short of his lips. He looked at me, squinting past the smoke. “Yeah, a lot of them do that.”

“She shaves her cunt bare,” I said.

Vomiting up these cruel vulgarities forced the blood into my head. Please remember, I wasn’t drunk, hadn’t had a sip of anything stronger than club soda. I felt happy, there’s no other way of putting it.

I said, ‘I know her. I’ll probably fuck her one of these days.”

Vince stayed quite still for a couple seconds more. “I doubt that,” he said (57-58).

 

At times Johnson’s writing mirrors the deceptively simple prose of Hemingway:

I saw Flower Cannon again at the end of April. The weather was warm. By noon of this particular day I was down to jeans and a T-shirt, carrying my sports coat over my shoulder. The people along the avenue seemed relaxed and alive. A combo of five students played jazz in a tiny garden park. There were children on the grass. Balloons were for sale. A snapshot would have caught mouths open in laughter and dogs floating mid-air (47).

Like the ‘journalist- writer’ (Hemingway, Camus, etc.), the academic-writer treads the worlds of both supposedly stiff upper lip tweeds and art for art’s sake in the writing world, a greater sense of freedom apparent. Though, Johnson’s novella has the smooth, soothing prose of jazz and soul, his writing lyrical and poetic, clearly demarcating itself from the pressures and formulaic structure of the academic world.

Philip Roth could be the poster boy of such a genre, with The Human Stain (2000), American Pastoral (1997), and I Married a Communist (1998) (part of the Zuckerman series), in which Nathan Zuckerman features as a classics professor at the fictional Athena college. Meanwhile, the bulk of Bret Easton Ellis’s novels operate in the same format, the fictional Camden Liberal Arts College featuring as the setting for most of his works, including Lunar Park (2005), a pseudo autobiography in which the author now lectures at the college and attempts to sleep with his students, a practice which is normal in his Rules of Attraction (1987). University life appears to be lamentably less salacious this side of the globe.

 

Two other special mentions are American Jewish author Bernard Malamud’s A New Life (1961) and Nabokov’s Pnin (1957) (Lolita could also possibly be included, as Humbert was himself a lecturer). In Pnin, Nabokov’s unreliable narrator is assistant professor of Russian and attends the fictional Waindell College. In real life, Malamud received a Master’s degree from Columbia University, before teaching at Oregon State University, though was not able to teach Literature due to his lack of a PhD. In A New Life, Malamud fictionalizes this experience.

Johnson’s novella works well to explore the venture into academia that many well-known writers have accomplished and are familiar with. At the core of the awkward sexual tension is a subtle humour at Reed’s expense, at the character’s constant rivalry with the past and the present that both manage to evade his capture and understanding, as well as, often, the reader’s own. My own academic experiences vary greatly from anything I have ever read, including Name of the World.

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