Life Overflows With Life: The TFT Review of Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
If you want to read a really good essay about Denis Johnson and his new novella, Train Dreams, you should read James Wood’s New Yorker review (“Cabin Fever”, 9/5/11). It quotes all the exemplary and quotable stuff and basically gets everything right. It opens with a short discussion of Tolstoy’s story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” which Johnson may well have been thinking of when he wrote Train Dreams, since the book takes place in large part on a single small and isolated patch of land in Idaho. Woods are cleared there, a home is built, a child is born, a fire rages, a wife and daughter are lost, a man sleeps alone on the ashen ground.
I thought of Tolstoy too, reading Train Dreams, but not of the story Wood mentions. (Tolstoy’s answer to his own titular question, by the way, is “just enough to be buried in.”) I thought of Harold Bloom’s chapter on Tolstoy in The Western Canon. Bloom writes, “Tolstoy was moved not so much by a commonplace fear of dying or death as by his own extraordinary vitality and vitalism, which could not accommodate any sense of ceasing to exist.” Vitality, for Bloom, means that life overflows with life, is super-saturated, complete in itself while also in some sense exceeding itself. But, Bloom warns us, “[n]othing is got for nothing, and certain strong writers (women as well as men) cannot achieve their aesthetic splendor without solipsism.” Elsewhere in the essay Bloom writes, “What Nietzsche called ‘the primordial poem of mankind,’ the cosmos as we have agreed to see it, is reperspectivized by Tolstoy. Reading him incessantly, you don’t so much begin to see what he sees, you start to realize how arbitrary your own seeing tends to be. Your world is much less abundant than his, since he somehow manages to suggest that what he sees is at once more natural and yet more strange.”
The last line of the Bloom quote is of course adapted from Wallace Stevens, another great American original, whose poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” concludes:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
One gets a similar sense reading Johnson: while in his writerly company you cannot help but believe that the world is a function of his apprehension of it, and it is this quality that lends his matchless prose its sense of having been less written than received, an effortless and profound transmission, radio waves unscrolling in the black sea between the prairie and the star map—all that heady bullshit, but ringing true.
Several critics—Wood, for one, and also Anthony Doerr, writing in the New York Times Book Review—have mentioned that there is a connection between Train Dreams and Johnson’s novel, The Name of the World, which came out in 2000. The connection, as they have it, is that both books are slender, and each features a male protagonist who has lost a wife and young daughter to an accident—a car crash in The Name of the World, a wildfire in Train Dreams. That’s true, but it is not the whole truth. What I mean is that though much about the men is different, even opposite—their intellects, their stations, their eras—they share more than the nature of their losses. Each man consigns himself to loneliness, struggles to persist in the world of regular things (crucially, each man succeeds in living some version of an “everyday life”), refuses any woman who wants him, and suffers mightily for the love and absence of an unknowable, perhaps non-existent God.
Michael Reed, narrator of The Name of the World, is capable of telling his own story and willing to tell it. He has a cushy job he doesn’t want at a university of no particular distinction. He has followed a red-headed art student named Flower Cannon to a church outside of town:
“Fourteen rows, about a dozen folks on each side of the aisle: nearly three hundred people, all singing beautifully. I wondered what it must sound like out in the empty green fields under the cloudless blue sky, how heartrendingly small even such a crowd of voices must sound rising up into the infinite indifference of outer space. I felt lonely for us all, and abruptly I knew there was no God.”
Robert Grainier, the protagonist of Train Dreams, cannot or will not tell his own story, and so Johnson tells it for him, which is to say about him. Whereas The Name of the World grants us a mere slice of Reed’s life (the novel spans a period of roughly a year) Grainier’s life is presented in something like its entirety. He is born at or around the dawn of the 20th century and dies in the late ‘60s, having been a laborer and man of faith all of his days. Here he is on a visit to Bonners Ferry, the Idaho town on whose outskirts he lives:
“Over on Second Street, the Methodist congregation was singing. The town of Bonners made no other sound. Grainier still went to services some rare times, when a trip to town coincided. People spoke nicely to him there, people recognized him from the days when he’d attended regularly with Gladys, but he generally regretted going. He very often wept in church. Living up the Moyea with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad man. When the hymns began, he remembered.”
You wouldn’t know it from the way I’ve been talking about it, but Train Dreams is also very funny. Quirky, colorful, off-beat characters intrude on Grainier’s solitude at regular intervals, each one a babbling fool. There are roughnecks and Indians and a man dying in the woods of knife wounds to the backs of his knees. When a risque film screens in town Grainier is nearly done in with lust by the word “pulchritude” on a promotional poster. A man reports himself shot by his own dog.
The Name of the World is a funny book, too—at one point, Reed walks into a room in which Flower Cannon is presenting a performance art project: she’s shaving her vagina in front of her whole class. All Johnson’s books are pretty funny, it’s just hard to remember this about them because they are so much more, or other, than works of comedy, even as comedy seems essential to their being. Jesus’ Son, a collection of linked stories that launches a thousand MFA theses annually, is narrated by a world-class loser junkie—such a fuck-up that he’s actually named Fuckhead—but the stories have such individual and aggregate vitality that not even twenty years of all the love in the world has been able to blunt their impact, render them familiar, or stale their jokes.
Padgett Powell once wrote that Johnson “takes loss through some kind of sound barrier, past which celebrations of joy in destitution appear. For clean line, for deftness, for hard honest comedy there is no better than Denis Johnson.” That seems exactly right to me, and as good a note to end on as any—better, probably, than whatever crescendo I might have otherwise lathered myself towards. But I guess I shouldn’t just end this essay by quoting an old blurb, so let me say that the one thing that gave me pause about Train Dreams was that instead of feeling complete unto itself it made me want to re-read The Name of the World. After reading them back to back I’m honestly not sure which one is better. The “right answer” of course is the new book, because it’s set in the wild past and is about a guy who works with his hands and because it’s the new book, whereas The Name of the World is about mid-life bourgeois ennui and is, among other things, a campus novel. But perhaps it is not (should not be) necessary to choose.
It seems to me that Train Dreams is not, in the final analysis, a repetition, a re-visitation, or a re-imagining of The Name of the World. I believe that the books have a binary relationship, yin and yang, achieving completion through their starkest contrasts, by the seed of each implanted in the eye of the other. You should read them both.
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