The Name of the World finds Denis Johnson the visionary poet and Denis Johnson the sober novelist engaged in a puzzling tug of war. What begins as a muted evocation of grief takes increasingly strange turns, until the novel's second half spins away from the narrative logic of the first. The result is, well, mixed, a beautiful mess glued together mostly by the power of Johnson's transcendent prose. The protagonist this time around is not a junkie or a drug dealer or even a writer, but a college professor whose wife and child died four years earlier in an automobile accident. Michael Reed walks, he talks, he teaches, but inside his thoughts rip "perpetually around a track like dogs after a mechanized rabbit." Not much has happened since their death, and numbed by the habit of grief, he thinks that's just fine. "Nothing was required of me," Reed thinks. "I just had to put one foot in front of the other, and one day I'd wander wide enough of my dark cold sun to break gently from my orbit."
That occasion comes when Reed reaches the premature end of his university appointment--and meets a redheaded cellist, the sort of wild, witchy, and becomingly deranged coed often found in books but perhaps less often in life. Flower Cannon (not, as one may imagine, the name she was born with) also shaves her pubic hair as public performance art and offers stripteases for fun and profit on the side. As the novel grows less coherent, Reed blunders into her childhood dream, or memory, which echoes his own dream and is also somehow haunted by the ghost of his daughter, or maybe Flower herself is the ghost of his daughter, or, well, something to that effect. (Dialogue such as "You. Are you a siren? A witch?" does little to clarify the situation.) But in the end it doesn't matter, because the dilemma this student presents Reed is as old as all time, and as easy to describe: "To let my wife and child be dead. I didn't think I was cruel enough for that. Because that is what the imperfections in Flower's skin invited me to do. There was a sense in which Anne and Elsie had to be killed, and killing them was up to me."
Actually, this sort of straightforward psychological exposition isn't really Johnson's bag. Like his antihero, he's after "the unforeseen"--that which can't be explained in words but only suggested through imagery, the more shocking the better. "In my current frame of mind I'd hoped for warnings much stranger and not so obvious," Reed thinks after reading a religious tract. In a similar vein, Johnson instructs us how to read his book: "I think this narrative might cohere, if I ask you to fix it with this vision: luminous images, summoned and dismissed in a flowering vagueness." Vagueness does indeed flower here, but it does so amid flashes of genuine brilliance, the kind of writing that gave the classic Jesus' Son its particular brand of unhinged lyricism.
Reed, for instance, is surrounded by characters in memorably Johnsonian states of desperation. History professor Tiberius Soames, fresh on the heels of a nervous breakdown: "Michael, we must get out of this flatness. The flatness and the regimented plant life. The vastly regimented plant life"; the caterer, a Peter Lorre look-alike who calls herself the Froggy Bitch and has the "smashed sinuses of an English bulldog"; the head trauma patient who wanders the grounds of a former lunatic asylum, holding aloft a small, imaginary object like an invisible torch: "I don't know. I can't see it. It's very light." No one but Johnson could bestow such radiant strangeness upon the inhabitants of a Midwestern college town. And if Reed's final, defiantly unreflective stance isn't much of a revelation, well, one hates to request a man with a knife sticking out of his eye in every Denis Johnson book. As brief and vivid as a hallucination, The Name of the World is the work of a prose musician who wisely refuses to play the same note twice. --Mary Park