The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, stories by Denis Johnson, reviewed

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden [stories]
Denis Johnson.
Random House. $27

Denis Johnson’s latest, and unfortunately last, volume of short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, published a quarter century after his ironically numinous Jesus’s Son is a work of perverse literary transubstantiation. His characters go from bad to worse to worser and when they are just about to hit bottom, we, the reader, not necessarily they, realize there is no bottom to hit, and watch bedazzled as they crash through a smoky skylight on the ceiling of Hell, and then realize their descent through Hell is temporary, because in Johnson’s cosmology, Hell has no bottom either, just a “trap door in the bottom of your soul” that opens, plunging the characters into a psychic abyss, that the narrator of “Triumph Over The Grave” describes as “the pre-chaotic depths, where good and evil are one thing.” So in the end, after their hallowing and harrowing consecration, we are left with solely their singed souls.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden Denis Johnson

The fact that the narrator of “Triumph Over the Grave,” “had ingested a lot of LSD” before he was wheeled out as part of a demonstration at a university hospital by the sadistic head of Orthopedics, in front of an auditorium of medical students, is peculiarly irrelevant, because in Johnson’s cosmology we’re all sideshow geeks, waiting our turn to have our knees contorted into locking and unlocking in public, under the influence of “a lot of LSD” and sadistic healers. We just might not yet have had our hour to fret upon the stage. But our time is nigh. We might first have a turn in the audience, we might first have our turn as the head of Orthopedics, but most certainly our turn on line, in a wheel chair, with a locked knees and “a lot of LSD,” getting twisted and tormented in front of a crowd, until the “Great void of Extinction was swallowing the whole of reality at an impossible speed and yet nothing could overcome our continual birthing into the present,” is pitilessly creeping forward, and our ticket is bound to be punched. The disconcerting feeling after reading The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is not “Look how bad some people have it; I sure am lucky to be able to watch those poor fuckers from a safe distance, surrounded by my wife, my kids, my Samsung 75” QLED TV, my 401k and my Platinum Health Insurance Plan” – nuh-uh, not with Johnson just pointing his finger to our place in the queue.

This volume should serve to both advise and warn other writers who want to tread Johnson’s terrain (Thom Jones being the only contemporary American I’m familiar with who had successfully pulled it off, beating Johnson to the last punch line, Death, by a scant nine months.) The advice: Try something else. The warning: NO TRESPASSING.

–Vincent Zangrillo


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