Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Nobody Move – Denis Johnson
On the inside flap of the hardback edition is a ridiculous claim that this novel is “touched by echoes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.” And the blurbs on the back compare Johnson to Twain, Whitman and God (the last by Jonathan Franzen). We get a snippet from a Jim Lewis review in The New York Times – “Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist.” This quote is incomplete; it actually continues with “and Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book.” Lewis was referring to the novel that won a National Book Award, not to Nobody Move. If comparisons are to be made, I found Elmore Leonard’s influence in the fast-moving, sassy, street smart dialogue. Then we descend into the dark and twisted territory staked out by Cormac McCarthy. Maybe DJ was aiming for the type of lucrative movie deals garnered by those two authors. Serve up plenty of sex, vulgarity, violence and – this is important if you want to emulate Cormac – creepiness. There’s an ominous Tall Man who, it turns out, is five foot seven; no reason is given for how he got his name, though something is wrong with him: “He stood under the ceiling light with his hat tipped forward and his face in a shadow and a hooked pinky traveling toward one of his nostrils, if he had nostrils.” We never learn more. Yes, I read the whole thing (it’s very short – a novella, at best – and it was serialized in Playboy, that citadel of good taste). For me this became a study revealing how low the literary world has sunk. Because – Please listen to me – no true American artist would sink so low as to produce a smarmy bit of pandering like Nobody Move. I’ll go straight to the text to prove my point. “I didn’t say I’m killing you,” Juarez told him. “What’s happening is I’m about to cut off your balls. If you die of it, that’s your personal decision.” What Juarez and Gambol are going to do, as Jimmy watches, is to eat his balls (they’ve done this with previous victims). Later there’s an encounter with a wheelchair-bound judge who’s wearing a colostomy bag: “With both her hands she grasped the bag under his armpit and jerked it free and struck him across the face with it, putting half a pirouette behind the blow, and Gambol leapt aside as feces erupted down the man’s neck and chest and behind his back, so that he was wearing it and sitting in it.” Actually, Denis Johnson is wearing it and sitting in it. And so are you, if this kind of stuff appeals to you. To conclude my study I checked out what reviewers at the top publications had to say. I couldn’t find one objection to the book’s ugliness; in fact many found much to praise in Nobody Move. Heaven help us.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden – Elizabeth von Arnim
To my surprise (and it was a pleasant one) this is a subversive book. It pricks and deflates conventional beliefs with a light, graceful touch; all is serene, there’s not an iota of stridency. The opening words are “I love my garden.” What Elizabeth doesn’t love are her fellow human beings. On the final page she strolls the green paths and thinks “It makes one very humble to see one’s self surrounded by such a wealth of beauty and perfection anonymously lavished and to think of the infinite meanness of our own grudging charities, and how displeased we are if they are not promptly and properly appreciated.” The word the author chooses to italicize is significant because nature’s beauty is usually attributed to God. And she uses “we” and “our” in referring to meanness; Elizabeth is as selfish as others. She feels no pity or duty toward the poor; entertaining guests is a chore, and when “great friends” depart she wishes “not to see them again for at least ten years.” One of the book’s many virtues is its humor; characters and episodes are gently slanted to show their comic side. Her husband is referred to only as the Man of Wrath. Though mostly silent (or absent altogether) he occasionally launches into long speeches; some express a misogynistic point of view. “Do you suppose that the intellectual husband, wrestling intellectually with the chaotic yearnings of his intellectual wife, ever achieves the result aimed at?” Of those women of the lower class who get a prompt clout, he says, “I consider they are to be envied rather than not since they are early taught, by the impossibility of argument with marital muscle, the impotence of female endeavor and the blessings of content.” An iconoclast herself, Elizabeth seems to respect (and to be amused by) the opinions that the Man of Wrath devilishly advocates; at any rate, she gives him full rein. Garden was a huge success when it came out in 1898; I think it was passed along by its female audience much as a banned book might be. Women probably admired the author’s freedom – not just to say what she pleases, but her escape from the duties and responsibilities of caring for family and household. Though Elizabeth had three children in rapid succession, these “babies” play a mostly decorative role; a governess does the heavy lifting. For many years the identity of the author was a mystery; in the volume I have (which came out in 1900) there’s a Forward in which it’s attributed to Her Highness Princess Henry of Pless. This Forward also describes Garden as a “gem among the world’s prose poems.” I agree with the gem part, but I didn’t find the language to be poetic. So what is the book – a diary, a memoir, a novel, a journal of musings, an idyll in which nature and solitude are the objects of desire? Actually, it can’t be confined to any category. It’s much like the flowers and plants and trees that, in their season of freedom, run rampant, but do it quietly, and are lovely. *

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