Denis Johnsonâ€™s THE NAME OF THE WORLD is a wonderfully crafted novel about grief. This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, Iâ€™ve always been a bit scared to open it because Johnsonâ€™s JESUSâ€™ SON is one of my all time favorites. Itâ€™s the sense that once a book has changed you or played a pivotal role in your life you donâ€™t want to taint that feeling by immersing yourself into the authors other work because you fear you wonâ€™t get as much out of it. Your expectations are too high, and if it doesnâ€™t live up to them your original opinion of the author will be jaded.
So, that being said, this is no JESUSâ€™ SON. Johnson still plays with narrative structure here, but its not forced here. Instead we are given glimpses of the narratorâ€™s past as he remembers - things and situations aid in his memory as they do in real life. It doesnâ€™t start with the tragedy that changed him, instead it begins with the possibility of relief for his loss. Through a new interest in his life it provides an impetus for his change. Enter Flower Cannon, a young student at the university he teaches. She reminds him of the thrill in pursuing maybe not love but the act of pursuing affection, while also representing the â€˜ghost of his daughter.â€™ We are given so much about his psychology in such a short timespan. It isnâ€™t until he leaves his teaching position is he able to fully pursue a new life - one that isnâ€™t anchored by the death of his wife and daughter. Flower is wild, and it is this impulsiveness that our narrator falls for and through his quasi-obsession with her he becomes less structured by routine and grief. The segments devoted to Flowerâ€™s lifestyle make the book such a delightful read - one example not to spoil too much: The narrator stumbles into an art performance called A CANNON PERFORMANCE where he sees Flower shaving her groin for a group of art enthusiasts. Our narrator struggles with the title of the show, one possibility would be the shock factor of seeing something like that is like the blow from a cannon. This is before he even learns her name.
â€œTo tell you the story of my name, I believe I first have to tell you the story of your face.â€