Al, the best friend of my sister’s then-boyfriend, was a writer. I knew him in my early years in college, just when I was beginning to write my own first attempts at stories. Six years my senior, Al had studied with Joyce Carol Oates—one of my early idols—as an undergraduate at Princeton, and went on to earn his MFA at Columbia, where he’d written a collection of stories I never read but assumed were masterpieces. Naturally, I looked up to him. I asked about his novel-in-progress, and listened to him expound on the importance of writing in long-hand. (Instant messaging, he said, had taught our generation to use computers strictly as an anti-thought communications tool.) In the end, I didn’t learn much from Al about the art of writing fiction. But the best thing he ever did for my writing was he bought me my first copy of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.
Well, it didn’t start off so good. Jesus’ Son is one of those books that makes beginning fiction writers take one step back before taking two steps forward. I was no exception. It’s the style, the tone, the subject matter—I loved all three, and because Johnson is such a master, I got the idea it was simple to do. I was wrong, of course, and I ended up writing cheap imitations for some time before letting the influence reside somewhere deeper in my own consciousness and voice.
That’s a long way of saying I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is it that makes the stories in Jesus’ Son work, then, when the same elements—dream-like narration, drug-addicted characters, grimy, violent environments—come off as sensationalist or melodramatic or hokey in the hands of so many other writers, beginners or otherwise.
The vague—but correct—answer is the one Tobias Wolff offered to The New Yorker fiction editor in a podcast about Jesus’ Son originally airing in May of 2009: “The answer lies in the art.” It comes down, finally, to the sentences. I think that’s true, but I would argue there’s something a bit more complicated at work here, too.
Roland Barthes wrote a book (The Pleasure of the Text) exploring what it is we do when we enjoy a text. Part of his theory is this idea that pleasure is the result of a “seam” created by two opposing forces—“edges”—in the work. He offers an example of Marquis de Sade’s sentences—“so pure they might be used as grammatical models”—containing vulgar, pornographic messages. In other words, neither the pure sentences alone nor the vulgarities alone can produce real pleasure for the reader; the pleasure of reading those sentences happens only because of the compromise—the seam—created by the two edges.
That’s where Jesus’ Son comes in. It would be easy to go through Johnson’s sentences and apply Barthes’ example of syntactic purity conveying chaotic brutalities. There’s at least one example in every paragraph. But that doesn’t, in itself, answer the question of why Jesus’ Son works.
The answer, at least for me, lies in the same principle, only applied on a broader scale. The entire book—the arc from the first story to the last—functions in the seam between consciousness and sub-consciousness. Take a look at the first sentences of the book’s opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking:”
A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping … A Cherokee filled with bourbon … A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student …
And a family from Marshalltown who head-onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri …
… I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious …
Notice the ellipses. Johnson begins Jesus’ Son with a barrage of anti-chronological flashes of dream-like images, and introduces our narrator immediately as someone coming out of sleep—half-awake. The entire book, then, is framed within the gray area between dreams and reality. But why is that important?
Let’s pretend for a minute that Jesus’ Son was written not at the seam, but from one side or the other. If Fuckhead, the book’s first-person narrator, told the stories entirely from the side of consciousness, a few problems would arise. First—and this is the obvious one—the authenticity of his voice would be called into question. He is, after all, a drug addict under the influence in most of the stories, so how lucid could he plausibly be?
A subtler problem, it seems to me, would be the loss of the poetic beauty and resulting moments of joyous epiphany in the stories. There are images Fuckhead encounters in his semi-conscious state that have a celestial power, a power stemmed from the fact that the reader, like Fuckhead himself, begins to see these images as a combination of the real and the imagined, the actual and the ethereal.
Look at two images from the stories “Work” and “Emergency.” In “Work,” Fuckhead and his friend Wayne are busy stripping copper wires from Wayne’s old house for scrap money when they see a naked, redheaded woman (who turns out to be Wayne’s wife) on a parasail, flying over a river, strung along by a motorized boat. (You try summarizing it.) In “Emergency,” Fuckhead and a coworker, Georgie, are driving in the frozen Iowa night and come upon what Fuckhead believes at first to be a group of angels “descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.” It turns out what he’s actually seeing is the screen of a drive-in movie theater. These kinds of visions would come off on the side of sensationalism and absurdity through a strictly conscious, realistic lens—how realistic is it to see a friend’s naked wife soaring overhead, or stumble upon a drive-in movie in a blizzard?
And what about the flip-side? What if Johnson had written Jesus’ Son exclusively on the subconscious end—the hallucinatory dream end—of the spectrum? Reading the flying woman and the drive-in angels as no more than dreamed symbols of divine salvation—wouldn’t that be the cheapest tip of the hat to every armchair psychologist in the world?
The truth is, that’s exactly where most beginners trying to write like Denis Johnson get themselves into trouble. They think writing from the perspective of a drug-addict is a “license”—as Tobias Wolff puts it in the same interview—to write stories “descending into chaos and formlessness.” Maybe you’ve been in a workshop with one of those beginning writers, and complained that nothing in the story makes any sense.
“It’s not supposed to make sense,” the beginning writer says, swiping his bangs from one side of his forehead to the other.
The beginning writer doesn’t get it. (Surprise: that beginning writer was yours truly.) But Denis Johnson does, and to prove it, he’s got a direct response to that beginning writer in the book itself.
In the story “Steady Hands in Seattle General,” Fuckhead is rehabilitating in the hospital with another man, a guy called Bill. While Fuckhead is giving Bill a shave, he notices two bullet holes in the guy’s cheeks—one where the bullet entered, another where it made its escape. Bill tells the story of his ex-wife, who shot him. He goes on to say that while he was knocked out from the bullet, he had a dream, which he still remembers and continues to have from time to time. When Fuckhead asks him to describe the dream, Bill says, “How could I tell you about it? It was a dream. It didn’t make any fucking sense, man.”
Still, Fuckhead wants something—anything—to understand the dream. And what Bill says next is what Denis Johnson wants the reader to underline a thousand times when considering why these stories could only work in that space Roland Barthes would call the seam:
Well, for one thing, the dream is something that keeps coming back over and over. I mean, when I’m awake … And the dream wasn’t—there wasn’t anything sad about it. But when I remember it, I get like, Fuck, man, she really, she shot me. And here’s that dream.
There it is, the answer to my question in a few sentences spoken by a fictional man with bullet holes in his face. Jesus’ Son works because it’s like Bill’s recurring dream in two major ways:
- Despite all the shit—the violence and the despair—it’s not “sad” or sentimental. Still, it’s not detached or insensitive, either. There’s feeling there.
- It’s a recurring dream he has when he’s awake—a subconscious experience, experienced consciously—inseparable from real life. In other words, it’s a dream with real consequence.
In the end, you’ll ask a hundred readers why Jesus’ Son is a great work of fiction and you’ll get a hundred different answers. But if you’re asking this reader, I’d say it’s all about Barthes’ seam, and what Jesus’ Son does there. It doesn’t slip into sensationalism or sentimentality. But neither does it avoid them, either by irony or detachment. Instead, it confronts sensationalism and sentimentality. The pleasure exists not in the outcome one way or the other, but in the confrontation itself. Beginning writers, awed by the viciousness and revelation of the lives in Jesus’ Son, will continue to write stories suffering from its initial impact. Eventually, though, if they keep reading it over the years, they’ll realize what he’s really up to. Maybe then they’ll be able, finally, to move on and write something great themselves.
Chris McCormick is a fiction writer from California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southeast Review, Flyway, and Fiddleblack, among others. Beginning in the fall, he will attend the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Follow him on Twitter: @chris_mccorm