Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, Part 1: 1997

October 19th, 2011 § 0 comments

This was a one-pager written for T.C. Boyle’s undergrad fiction workshop. I recently read this book again for his grad fiction workshop, fourteen years later, and while noodling around online realized there still wasn’t much coverage of what I suppose now qualifies as a cult classic, even if only because Denis Johnson has become a name more widely known. So, for what it’s worth: something another me wrote a long time ago. Be kind.

From the beginning the tone of the tale is established, prefaced by a voice at once worshipful and historical, incantatory and conjuring.  It is a raconteur’s tale, a pastime (“Can we help it if…we like to tell stories that want, as their holiest purpose, to excite us with pictures of danger and chaos?”), that disdains the drama of conflict for the drama of strangeness—the drama of steeping the reader in an alien, impossible world and in the heightened, minute awarenesses that accompany such steeping, such discovery.  In this Johnson’s prose does all the work, a detailed reportage; Fiskadoro has the structure of a chronicle—thus the passive nature of the characters, stunted by memory, defect, or the afterstate of the world, survivors and only that, semi-literate and uncomprehending, who are all acted upon; the gradually unfolding lineage, exhaustively described, of cumulatively enriching events.  In both Fiskadoro and Jesus’ Son, Johnson proves himself a master of conveying the lucid solipsistic event, circumscribing a dream, a nothingness, or a state of being past consciousness in order to illustrate its borders, to asecrtain its shape through its edges.  Whereas in his stories he achieves this through a series of spare, rhapsodic non sequiturs, in Fiskadoro he employs a dense exterior voice.  He gives voice to pre-verbal, post-verbal, even non-verbal moments, voiceless moments beyond cognitive process, feeling-states.  His characters are all prey to limbos that operate by their own incontrovertible inner logics, pose their own questions and contradict them, and resolve themselves without trace or echo.  A dream of several days’ duration, told in detail, disappears into a moment before forgetfulness.  Fiskadoro knows Sammy only by the name of ________.  Grandmother’s past, present, and imagination belong to an inextricable whole; several times, in the story of her endless days on the ocean, paragraphs chase their long final sentences in dwindling circles before swallowing themselves.  “You touch the people and they dissolve.  There is nothing left but you.  And you will not remember.”  The novel, like a fractal, finally replicates the structure of its paragraphs and chapters by being similarly hermetic, self-convinced and self-contained, obscure, cryptic, and impenetrable, opaque and perfectly stated, like a riddle, like the black monolith from 2001.

Grandmother is the vessel of the story, the only person in whom any link to the past, to ourselves, may be extracted.  Mr. Cheung clings to scraps of the past but knows nothing of their meaning, clings to them as one might the letter of the law, with outdated faith, and not its spirit.  Grandmother, as she slips invisibly in remembering to become Marie, is, like the aged of Faulkner’s south, “confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom the past is not a diminishing road, but instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches”.  Her past, however, is no meadow but a successive series of nightmares that have left her mute.  When, in the novel’s final moments she suffers once more the enormity of the sea, is shriven, and reborn, she is delivered, much like Fiskadoro, into an infant’s consciousness.  Fiskadoro’s new infant freedom, unlike his earlier inchoate adolescence, is powerful not for its roiling confusion but for its innocence, for the way it can still be writ upon, for its reconciling of memory with unformed amnesia.  In a way the book chronicles the passage of an entire world from burdened, inexpressive adolescence to freedom, to the numinous edge of cognition.  After all, “Does there not pass over a man a space of time when his life is a blank?”  The book details that time of blankness in a language that befits it.  The passage beyond costs lives, perhaps an entire way of life.  Johnson paints a terrifyingly truthful picture of our individual inconsequence, of the cosmic vagaries of fate.  At one point Marie concludes simply of the Lieutenant, “He died because he wasn’t saved”, and later, similarly, that she herself was “saved because she was saved.”   Yet if the book realizes our insignificance, a dread at the terrifying arbitrariness of the universal organization, it also points the way to how a mind might encompass this.  Mr. Cheung, in the midst of a magnanimous vision of the cycles of the world—endlessly, tragically, hopefully enacted “Again and again”—realizes “the issue is that I failed to recognize myself in these seagulls.”  He sees in Fiskadoro the relinquishing of memory he himself cannot accomplish, but which will make Fiskadoro a great leader.  “But when the earth is crushed to fine dust…and hell is brought near…man will remember his deeds.  But what will memory avail him?”  To move forward, one must have no fear, yet have known fear, and not have forgotten it.  In this way, Mr. Cheung, the frightened, rueful traditionalist, guards a part of the novel’s humanity: he fears, yet retains our identification and compassion.

The profound lightness of the novel’s end is a lifting of bans, a leavening of the burden of memory.  Fiskadoro imagines the twentieth century’s apocalypse come true, and then carries humanity one uncertain, necessary step beyond.

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