Saturday, April 28, 2007

Seeing angels and saving lives.

While reading my novels, I've also been slowly making my way through Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, a collection of stories that I never heard of until Matt brought it into class, but now I see pops up on every single must-read list that I've researched while on this little endeavor of mine. So every few nights, when I'm too tired to read the novel I'm working on, I'll pick up this slim little work and page through a story before I go to bed.

Now, I have to admit something - I don't always quite get these, and this makes me feel a touch shamed, like I'm missing a screw in my head or something. Don't get me wrong, they're enjoyable enough, but I guess I'm trying to figure out where the acclaim of this comes through. Is it the premise of the collection? The strange cracked-out narrator? The world that he inhabits? The untraditional way his stories meander through? The disconnect and urban rawness of his voice? I guess I'm trying to figure out what an English teacher might tell me if we were to study this little piece. I like them for sure, I guess I just wish I had someone to guide me towards the elements I'm supposed to be noticing instead of trying to figure it out myself.


I just finished "Emergency", which is possibly my favorite from the collection so far. It's all just so bizarre - the guy with the knife in his eye and how Georgie just pulls it out, how they save baby bunnies from a rabbit they run over, staying overnight in god-knows-where just because of a lack of headlights, the kid running away from the draft. It's all so weird yet normal in a way, and the voice of the narrator is the same way, bizarre but normal. Detached a little but not. Maybe because it's this weird combination of an immediate narrator and one who is also kind of backwards looking. He's close to the matter at hand but still so much the role of the older, wiser observer at the same time. Strange thing to do of Johnson, but it works. It's like being in the head of someone with a dissociative disorder or something.

But anyway. I like the bit about the baby bunnies. How Georgie is fricking obsessed with nursing these babies. It ties in well with how sad he is in the beginning, the blood he imagines he sees all over the ground, and in the end when he sees this kid and tells him he's going to help him get to Canada, and then says, "I save lives." Hugely ironic in the contrast of the hospital he works in where the Nurse and doctor seem to be selfish and don't really give a flying fuck. At the same time though, it's so interesting how he doesn't remember the eye guy for who he is, because I mean, who can forget a guy who's been stabbed in the eye? But he forgot about him so fast. I need to mull over why.

When the narrator confesses he's squashed the bunnies and Georgie asks him everything he touches turns to shit... I found that moment really sad. The narrator is obviously at a point in his life where he's trying to turn things around, working at a hospital for 3 weeks already and all. He's trying to do some right but this kind of shit happens. He meant well putting the bunnies in his shirt but he forgot and then they got smooshed and he has to confess this tearfully. I love the vulnerability and humanity in this moment. Crying over bunnies he didn't even care to save to begin with. He seems so small and childish in that moment.

And my favorite part:

On the further side of the field, just beyond 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 heart 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!"

"The drive-in..." I wasn't sure what these words meant.

"They're showing movies in a fucking blizzard!" Georgie screamed.

"I see. I thought it was something else," I said.
--[pg. 81, Jesus' Son]

I love this whole thing. This totally beautiful, trippy, eerie image of angels bigger than life descending through a snowstorm, and how incredibly freaked out it makes him, only for it to dawn on him very very slowly that when Georgie refers to a "drive-in", he's referring to the "angels". I wonder for a moment, if he freaked out in a bad way or freaked out in a good way. On first reading, I thought it was bad, in a why-the-fuck-are-there-angels-in-the-woods-and-what-are-they-gonna-do kind of way, but on a second reading, I wonder if he was almost hopeful for a second, that when he thought that's what they were, he got freaked out but also really hopeful and it touched him, only to be really disappointed once he realized he had it all wrong.

Also liked the bit at the end with the kid - throwing in a time setting there with the war, and it was quite effective in tying it back to Georgie's little thing about saving lives even while they spend a day meandering around doing pretty much nothing of note.

Anyway, I have to think a little harder about the whole thing and what the "theme" as we've learned in class, of this would be, but I really enjoyed it.

I guess my problem with these stories isn't that I don't like them, because I really do, it's just that I don't really get them immediately. I don't think they intuitively make sense or resonate with me, and I think it has something to do with how my brain is wired or my own experiences or the way I think. I have to think about them pretty hard to connect the dots because it is so unlike anything I have personally experienced I guess. Or maybe the manner in which it is presented. But I like the challenge of being forced to think about them and make them make sense to me. It's like learning to approach things from a new angle.

As an aside, I think this is how I'll approach short story collections for now. I'm working through short story collections on the side in addition to my novels, so I'll just go through stories every once in awhile when I find something I particularly feel compelled to write about, maybe do a final review of the collection when I'm done.

1 drops:

C. Dappen said...

We read this book for my Fiction Writing class last year.

There were often times when I too felt like I didn't quite get what it is that I was supposed to.

We talked a lot about the whole book being about salvation (hence, Jesus' son). FH is always trying to do something good, but always ends up messing everything up (hence, his name).

I suppose my advice would to just appreciate the stories. As complex as the plot appears, the context of its meaning isn't. It's just a guy, undeniably screwed up, trying to get through the craziness of life.

Emergency is pretty great. It was one of my favorites too. You should pick up the movie sometime. Jack Black plays a great Georgie.

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