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Category: Nobody Move

Mastering the situation

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I really thought the second installment was going to be the problem one, but, as David has noted, Denis Johnson sails through without a hitch.

In his neat little book on Dickens, G.K. Chesterton (himself no mean hand at the thriller, the detective story and all manner of genre narrative) noted that Dickens, as his career went along, became a master of pace and delay. Rather than just piling everything in, and throwing ever more narrative logs on the fire (the equivalent of Chandler having men come through the door with guns in their hands), Dickens gained the confidence to take his time. And that's what Johnson is doing here. There's not much action in this installment but a lot more situation and character depth and, as David says, really sizzling dialogue.

(what surprised Richard Rayner, after the jump)

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Denis Johnson's gym bag

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Anita might distract the cops with her door-blowing smile, but she’s gone by the time two FBI agents show up at the hotel room. They’re the ones who tell Jimmy that Anita embezzled the $2.3 million. They’re looking for it.

Jimmy’s on his way out. He’s holding Gambol’s gym bag -- which holds Gambol’s big, inconvenient shotgun -- and tells the agents he’s got his own clothes in it, is all. The FBI agents -- who go on to search the hotel room for Anita’s embezzled money, or clues to it -- let Jimmy walk away. They never check inside his bag.

Strains belief, right?

But does it matter? That's after the jump.

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Nobody Move: We're back ...

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Last month, Jacket Copy opened an ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move," which is being published in four parts in Playboy. Part 2 has just hit the stands, and now we pick up where we left off. ...

Toward the end of our initial discussion of "Nobody Move," Richard Rayner noted that the real challenge of the project would not be in the first installment but in the second. The opening section was all about the setup. Part 2 would be where we would see whether Johnson's serial had legs.

Rayner's right, of course, as anyone who's seen this season's premiere of "Mad Men" can attest. And Part 2 of "Nobody Move" really delivers — moving the story along, offering a number of classically weird Johnson moments and, most important, having a lot of fun with the conventions of the genre, the hard-boiled talk and attitude of noir.

Johnson opens Part 2 the morning after Part 1 ends, in the Log Inn Motel, where Jimmy Luntz has just slept with Anita Desilvera, a woman so out of his league that he has to keep looking at her to make sure she is real. There's a brief encounter with the cops, which Anita defuses through sheer animal lust: "At that moment," Johnson writes, "Anita came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, her black hair slicked back, and flashed a smile that would have blown the doors off Jesus Christ."

"Blown the doors off Jesus Christ"? How's that for hard-boiled? It doesn't even matter that Johnson's image makes no sense — last time I looked, Jesus didn't have any doors.

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Nobody Move: stay tuned for next month

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Richard's comments about the next installment of "Nobody Move" seem like a perfect place to wrap up phase one of our conversation, and look ahead to phase two.

So nobody move -- we'll be back next month to discuss the second part of Denis Johnson's serial novel, and to see where the story goes from here.

David L. Ulin

The serial novel: Slumming it?

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On this question of suspense: I once did a novel of 175,000 words and felt pretty pleased with myself, stamina-wise, until I went back to "Bleak House" and realized that Dickens had written closer to a million, building a huge cathedral of a novel in a way that, according to his biographers Peter Ackroyd and Edgar Johnson, was only semi-planned.

It really blows your mind.  Dickens set up and juggled multiple storylines to sustain suspense over such length. Carolyn rightly made the point that he was in the habit of introducing new characters almost out of the blue to keep things going. He just heaved them in and tossed them into the story blaze, especially in the early novels, the baggy monsters "Pickwick Papers" and "Martin Chuzzlewit." At that stage in his career, he was all about entertainment and excitement, whether of language or incident, about making it happen on the page, and giving his audience the same sort of instant bang that we, as viewers, as readers, increasingly demand these days, as David said a couple of days ago.

I don't get the feeling that Johnson is slumming it here, just being aware of his audience, as Dickens needed to be. The reader of Playboy just doesn't have the same commitment to Denis Johnson as does the purchaser of Denis Johnson novels. Johnson is too much the pro to be doing this off the cuff. I'd guess that he's got this plotted out reasonably carefully, with all the big cliffhangers already in mind. At the same time, he's enough of a purist to let the spontaneous moments occur -- like the guy's hat floating away on the wind. The next chunk will be the tricky one, though, and we'll start to get the sense of how good this thing might be.

Richard Rayner   

Photo credit: Dickens' desk and chair, Associated Press/Christie's

The lost art of seduction

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David's take on the immediacy of contemporary culture made me realize that I may have become addicted to instant narrative gratification. I love the magazine One Story because it's just one story, to be read and finished, neat and quick. On the Internet, don't ask me to click through 10 pages of self-absorbed prose — if it doesn't grab me early on, see ya, I'm out.

Getting just Part 1 (of four) of "Nobody Move" is a tease. We DO have to wait a whole month before we get the next piece. We DO have to save space in our spilling-over brainpans for Denis Johnson's characters and plot twists. It's unfair. It's painful. It's frustrating.

And then I realize: It's seduction.

When I hunted down my copy of Johnson's "Tree of Smoke," it was there in all its hefty glory, an elaborate, enormous work, and if I could just keep my eyes open and brain sharp long enough, I could consume it all in one sitting. Now I see there is something of a marvelous torture in the delayed gratification of a serial. I can't possibly get it all at once, and that brings on a craving that's missing when I can just turn the page to get to the next chapter.

Finally, this puts the setting in some perspective for me. Like Susan, I've been a bit squeamish about having to read this in Playboy. But of all the nudie magazines, an exasperated male friend pointed out, Playboy is the least smutty. It doesn't run fetish or hard-core porn photos. Instead, it's full of mostly naked women and totally naked women smiling willingly for the camera. It's the tease of porn mags. Instead of raunch, Playboy is, in its own way, about seduction. Which is why a serial there is starting to make sense.

Carolyn Kellogg

photo by extranoise in Germany via Flickr

The medium and the message?

I first read Denis Johnson's "Angels" when I was in graduate school in Amherst, Mass., the novel having been loaned to me by someone housesitting for an older professor. I was only 23 and blown away. I knew all those people in "Angels," though I wished I hadn't grown up with them, and I was stunned that someone had written a novel so deeply immersed inside their heads.

So reading this first installment of "Nobody Move" is strange because, once again, we're completely immersed, and it's a good thing. Since I've been reading a lot of noir lately — my favorite being that of Ross Macdonald, Walter Mosley and now Raymond Chandler, because of Judith Freeman's fine nonfiction book about him — this was perfect.

And it's so damn funny. The dialogue is funny, perfect just like Chandler's. The details are hilarious — the log motel and the restaurants and the river.

But I agree with several things Carolyn and David have pointed out. First, why can't we see the scene where Luntz shoots Gambol? Why would Gambol have been on that kind of ride and let him put the gun in the glove compartment in the first place? (Again, I wish I didn't know people like this, or rides like this.) If Gambol's supposed to be too tired to do it right, I'd like to know.

Second, the whole serialization thing is strange. I love the way the headline trumpets On Deadline!  Publishing History Begins Now.

But not really, given Dickens and Hardy and so many others, including the recent novels serialized in the New York Times Magazine.

Anyway, a month will pass, and I'll read again passionately, because I love Johnson and his style and his inimitable humor, which is beyond black and into some other netherworldly shade. But I probably will have to keep this story around.

Which brings me to Richard's comment about his son wanting the magazine. Yeah, only I live in a house with three feminist teenage girls, all of whom are taller than me. All very beautiful. All of whom gave me the most dubious, deadly looks when I mentioned that inside the FedEx envelope was Playboy. "I tell my grad students some of the best fiction in history has been published in Playboy," I said. "We just read a T.C. Boyle story in class that was originally in here."

They gave me the classic teenage answer. "Why?" Deadpan.

When I showed the cover to them (one is a college girl who reads Details, Esquire and about 10 other magazines and whose favorite magazine in the world is GQ), they all said quizzically, "People still read that?"   

I cut the story out and threw the rest of the pages away, mostly because the  cartoons were so bad. But I can't wait to see what happens with Anita. She's way better than a cartoon.

Susan Straight

The serial novel as highwire act

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I think Carolyn’s point about tension is a key one — especially given the immediacy of contemporary culture, where we’re used to stories being wrapped up in 22 or 48 minutes, and a serial can unfold almost in real time on the Web. Here, we’re looking at a 19th century lag time, a month between installments, which begs the question of how to keep a reader’s mind engaged. Often, I can’t remember what I did last week, let alone a month ago, and I wonder whether, when the second installment of “Nobody Move” comes out in mid-July, I’ll have to go back and re-read this installment just to get back up to speed.

I suspect I will, which raises another set of issues, since the story Johnson seems intent to tell may not bear up under repeated re-readings. How does an author maintain tension across the real time divide of monthly installments? What does that mean for the narrative?

On a related front, I also wonder — as per Richard’s comments about the set-up — just how far in advance Johnson has things planned. From a reader’s perspective, 10,000 words a month is a snail’s pace, but for a writer (especially a writer as complex and intentional as Johnson), it’s a power sprint. Does he know what’s coming? Is he throwing things into the story just to provide himself with challenges? How will the narrative change from month to month?

Thinking about this, you really begin to appreciate the achievement of a writer like Dickens, who unfolded his novels over a year and a half. For me, this is part of the draw of such a project — the sheer tightrope walking nature of it — but I’m very curious about how it functions from the writer’s perspective, how uncertainty (and deadline pressure) seeds the work.

David L. Ulin

A man in a barbershop vest walks into a bar

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I wasn't sure what to expect of a serial hard-boiled noir in Playboy from Denis Johnson, but it wasn't a guy in a checkered vest singing barbershop. Lutz starts out as an anti-noir character, the kind of nebbish Bogart played at so well in the bookstore in "The Big Sleep." But of course, Bogart was still Philip Marlowe behind the facade, and similarly, Luntz isn't a putz underneath, at least not a wimpy one. We don't see the scene where he shoots the much-bigger Gambol — an interesting omission, evoked only by the wonderful passage Richard cites — but we wind up convinced that he's got the guts to take action.

I'm not sure what purpose the barbershop bit serves, other than to give readers an early misimpression of Luntz, and to stick him in that goofy getup for the violent and seductive scenes that follow. At this point, I find it a little hard to believe that gambler Luntz would join a barbershop group, and I hope there's some narrative payoff. I don't want it just to provide a quirky, Tarantino-like juxtaposition; I want it to make some kind of twisted sense.

Maybe that kind of tension — how can this fit? — is what keeps a reader hooked between serial installments. Sure, we're curious about Gambol's fate, and what will happen between Luntz and Anita, but it's the question of whether the author will pull everything together that keeps us intrigued. Sometimes I wonder whether Dickens threw in a random character every now and then just to keep things interesting, challenging himself to make sense of everything in his allotted space (a mere 18 episodes — 900 pages).

David points out that the dialogue doesn't always work, but I disagree. I love Johnson's characters' crosstalk — often they seem to be in two entirely separate conversations. And it's not like the characters don't notice. "This is starting to sound like one of those messed-up conversations," Anita says to Luntz. As both David and Richard have pointed out, in moments like this, it seems as if Johnson is having some fun.

Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Tammy Green via Flickr

Dickens, Collins ... Denis Johnson?

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Dickens Wilkie

There’s something odd about the idea, isn’t there? That’s to say, the form of the serial novel doesn’t have the currency it did when Charles Dickens (above, left) and Wilkie Collins (above, right) were banging out monthly installments against a deadline for those magazines that Dickens ran and eventually owned. Such an undertaking has a gimmicky feel, and, in the case of the recent John Banville/Benjamin Black story in the New York Times Magazine, we were faced with a definitely wonky widget.

That said, the combination of Denis Johnson and Playboy feels much more promising. Was he winking in the direction of his own book, "Stars at Noon," when, early on in this first extract, a character says in a bit of dialogue: "Almost noon?" As usual, Johnson takes characters who start at the end of their tethers, a character situation that lends itself naturally toward noir and the pursuit thriller. Which is obviously, I hope, what we’re getting here — Denis Johnson channeling Elmore Leonard, with bits of "The Sopranos" thrown in, and making the gumbo his own.

For me, the thing got going with the scene break from the car so we get the look back at what just happened: "Standing at the pay phone, Jimmy Luntz punched a nine and a one and stopped. He couldn’t hear the dial tone. His ears still rang. That old Colt revolver made a bang that slapped you silly." It’s a lovely piece of writing, delivering a narrative surprise with observational acuity and making us smile besides.

Then there’s the scene where Luntz is trying to tie the tourniquet on the leg of the guy he’s just shot. "With surprising energy, Gambol suddenly tossed away his white hat. The wind caught it, and it sailed a dozen yards into the trees. Then he seemed to lose consciousness." He’s such a good writer. The sex scene at the end was great, and I look forward to seeing what Anita Desilvera gets up to with those Magnums she has stashed in the trunk of her car. Somehow the two main characters, Luntz and Anita, made me think of the kids in "Angels," Johnson’s first novel, now grown up in some spectacularly damaged way. At this point I’m definitely along for the ride — but then the set-up is probably the easiest bit of what Johnson is attempting here.

My 13-year old blinked when he saw me reading Playboy. "Hey, can I borrow that after you?" he said. He said he’d check out Denis Johnson too.

Richard Rayner

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