Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, Part 2: 2011

October 20th, 2011 § 0 comments

So here’s the one-pager on Fiskadoro I did for Boyle’s grad fiction workshop this fall. What happened? Did I get dumber, or just more honest (and are they always opposites)? More nitpicky and literal-minded? Less willing to do work, and more wanting to be spoon-fed? In the meantime, I met a man who insisted he knew who the narrator was, and wouldn’t tell me, merely exhorting me to read it again, more closely. I’d like to think I’m always moving forward, but it seems I was definitely more adept at throwing words at things back then, even or especially when I didn’t feel actually it. Be kinder.

When I first read Fiskadoro fourteen years ago, I was bewildered. There was sense I could make of it, but it was partial; no reading encompassed all the available material. I clung to sentences that gleamed from the text, trying to piece them together into some consistent philosophy. I identified strongly with Manager Cheung, his frustrated historical passion, his human frailty, while Fiskadoro seemed remote.

The book now seems somewhat diminished to me: how could I ever have gotten lost in that? Immersive capability is the price you pay for being able to hold a thing whole in your mind. I can now read the death of Fiskadoro’s father as a step ticked off the checklist of Campbell’s heroic journey used as a plot skeleton, instead of the accident it is almost naturalistically presented as. While I know now that the vagueness with which Fiskadoro’s initiation is described is intentional (and within the world of the story, explained by drugs), it feels abstract; Fiskadoro as a character feels like a cipher. All descriptions of the past have an emotional immediacy and the advantage of specificity; all descriptions of ritual and dream shade into allegory. The two feel like odd bedfellows, as does the juxtaposition of nuclear apocalypse and the evacuation of Saigon: they never really dovetail.

Still, peripheral elements of the story remain murky to me: who arrives at the end of the book (Cubans? Muslims? Cuban Muslims? Israelites?)? what is the timeline of the various short-lived coalitions (Alliance for Trading, etc.) that form and fall apart, and how are they related to the people who come at the end? what is the role of Cassius Clay? who are the tribe who alter Fiskadoro? how is he actually different from other men (doesn’t the subincision make him the same as the swampdwelling mutant tribe?)? Above all, who is the narrator of this book? How is s/he present for all these events, especially those that only take place in the head of a woman, Grandmother Wright, who presumably never speaks again?

If you were the member of a conquering culture telling stories of “danger and chaos,” is this the story you would tell? It seems tame; it seems to cut off before the actual tales of danger and chaos. However, structurally it shares this with the novel of ideas, or philosophical tracts: Huxley’s Island, Robert Harris’ Archangel, George Steiner’s The Portage of A.M. These books all spend their plots exploring the many sides and ramifications of an idea, building at the end to an event (the sort of event that would qualify as “inciting” in a traditional plot). Although there are events in the body of Johnson’s novel, it remains curiously inert, static: the only person with something approaching a story with which we can identify is Manager Cheung. The heartbreaking climax of his arc is his disillusion at the reading of Nagasaki.

For what heroism or resistance is Fiskadoro known? I assume from the text he is a rebel, leading the people of Twicetown against those who arrive at the book’s end. What motivates him to do so, when he won’t even stand up to Harvard Sanchez? What makes him a great leader (or what makes Mr. Cheung say he will be)?

It’s interesting to compare my memory of the book to the facts of the text: apart from the premise, what I remember best is Grandmother Wright’s helicopter escape. Clearly it had an emotional impact disproportionate to its length; I had the impression it took up the entire final third of the book. I admire Johnson’s reliance on extremely clear but disjointedly presented details to provide setting. Much of his world needs to be intuited, but the details he gives are so sharp and alarming as to enlist us in supplying our own filler to round out the setting, our own extrapolations of what he merely implies.

If the characters can be said to move toward any revelation, it is that of the cyclical nature of time, and the importance of inhabiting, to put it crassly, “the now.” Valiant and moving as Mr. Cheung’s efforts are to revive the past, his moment of final freedom comes in his identification with a seagull; Grandmother Wright, who early on has learned to see all eternity in a continuously upkept red flame, is shriven and reborn in the waters, literally of escape and figuratively of memory. And the drugs leave Fiskadoro functionally amnesiac as well as afflicted with short term memory loss. He has seen the horror but is unimpaired by it, unlike Mr. Cheung, who tries desperately to recover its details.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What's this?

You are currently reading Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, Part 2: 2011 at EDWARD GAUVIN.