I took a wonderful modern American fiction class during university. TO the best of my recollection, we only got through five works, but each of them was not only fantastic, but deeply impactful. To give you an idea of the calibre of the class, one of the works was Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Another was Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.
The class really came at a very important time in my life when I was having a lot of thoughts and considerations about what fiction really meant, and what it was that I was looking in fiction was beginning to change. The type of reader that I was changed to be something a little more accepting of art for art’s sake.
That certainly helped to process Jesus’s Son, and it certainly helped to process Train Dreams as well.
Train Dreams is a brief novel (novella? I didn’t bother with a word count) that goes over the long, pensive, and seemingly sorrowful life of Robert Grainier. It is a novel certainly, but it seems to follow a series of anecdote and vignettes from Grainier’s life which do not seems to add up to logical thematic whole, save for the fact that the anecdote’s are sorrowful, pensive, and Grainier’s own. That description is not meant to seem like a criticism – I felt like the sophistication was in the subtlety. I am not sure when I figured out that this novel, or rather both the works by Denis Johnson that I have read and remembered, are Tom Waits songs in lengthier written forms. Like a Tom waits song, there isn’t exactly, or necessarily, a cohesive narrative, but the overall feeling it creates feels complete nonetheless.
I’ve not read two works by Denis Johnson. I’ve read three. Between Train Dreams and Jesus’ Son I read Fiskadoro, a novel that for the life of me I cannot at all recall. Fiskadoro is one of Johnson’s older work, and it would appear that he had not arrived at his mastery yet. What I do recall was that it was significantly longer. There was no ambiguity there as to whether it was a novel or a novella. That doesn’t seem to be indicative of anything save for being a clue of what Johnson’s strength may have been – getting the details right to create a sentiment of a story. Johnson’s craft lies heavily in the less is more category, and as a person who frequently finds himself over-writing everything, it is certainly something I have found myself paying increasing attention to. The story of Robert Grainier feels complete without being overwritten. The details we are given are only the most urgent and fundamental.