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A literary palate cleanser?

August 1, 2008 |  5:05 pm

Stillettosonbed

Tod makes an interesting point about the way our experiences of Johnson's work color our expectations of "Nobody Move." I, too, am a huge admirer of Johnson, especially "Angels," "Jesus' Son" and the wildly underrated "Already Dead" — all of which are, as Tod points out, monumental because of how they get at the interior, explicating not just action but their characters' inner lives.

I agree that this is not part of "Nobody Move" — not yet anyway. But that's OK, and here's why. I did read "Tree of Smoke," and I was disappointed. The reason? The same one Tod cites in regard to "Nobody Move," that I was "aware of the writing for the first time in a book by Johnson; that I can see the machinery at play." I'd never had that experience, and it made me approach "Nobody Move" with trepidation, which, I'm glad to say, the story has not borne out.

But ... is this anything more than Johnson lite? Find out after the jump.

Sure, this is Johnson lite in a certain sense — a piece of formula writing unfolding in monthly installments, for an audience probably half-distracted by images of naked female flesh. But what's keeping me connected is the speed of it, the lack of apparent self-consciousness, even though it can't be anything other than an utterly self-conscious project: an attempt to produce an homage that transcends homage. This is the key to Johnson's finest writing — the story "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," for example — which works precisely because it doesn't appear to be trying to work at all. It seems uncontrived and without artifice, organic in the biggest meaning of the word.

Reading Johnson at his best is like tapping into the mainline; the writing seems so charged and inevitable that it's hard to imagine it coming out any other way. This is what was lacking in "Tree of Smoke," which felt ponderous, unsure of itself, like Johnson may have bitten off more than he could chew. "Nobody Move" is, of course, a different sort of story — far less ambitious, a kind of book-length riff. After "Tree of Smoke," though, I'm fine with the idea of the serial as palate cleanser, offering us a quick taste (or set of tastes) of Johnson writing for himself.

David L. Ulin

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