Thursday, January 1, 2009

On "Angels" by Denis Johnson ***

Johnson's Jesus' Son is one of my favorite books. How great that book is really hit me, though, when I started seeing stories from it in anthologies--"weaker" stories, stories I hadn't really paid that much attention to within the collection where some stories are so strong that they overpower others. But when the smaller stories, these ones I didn't notice within the collection amid so much other greatness, were pulled out and appreciated by themselves or in conjunction with other writer's work, which could barely match up, I was floored. What makes that collection so amazing is that each story is almost like a poem--so beautiful in its imagery and precise in its word choice--and yet also incredible in terms of great storytelling.

All that said, I've never been attracted to Johnson's longer works. I've picked up novels of his before and have never gotten past the first two or three pages. Admittedly, this isn't giving a work much of a chance, but this was in bookstores, in places where I had to decide quickly what was worth my spending a few dollars to join my reading for the next couple of months. (This was when I lived in Fort Worth--or rather, lived barely a few yards outside Fort Worth [the half of the apartment complex I lived in was outside the city limits]--and couldn't get a library card. Used books became my lifeline for a few years. I had to be careful what I purchased, had to make those books were worth it and would last a good while.) These days, with a library card in hand (so that I can actually afford to read as much as I do), I'm a bit more open to discovery and to trying new things.

Angels came to my attention--again--through Francine Prose's book How to Read like a Writer. That book was amazing in terms of making one excited about writing, making one think writing matters, and also making one excited about the books she discusses. Last year, I finally got back to Jane Austen, whose work I couldn't stand in high school and whose work I never managed to get past page 50 in. Pride and Prejudice took a while to get into, but by the time I'd gotten half way, I was singing its praises. Wonderful writing.

Prose analyzed the opening of Angels and made me want to go back and give this book a real try. And so it joined my list of reading, and now it's read. But my feelings about are pretty much the same as they were, years ago, before I read it. Fine, accomplished writing, but for whatever reason, the book didn't speak to me. Moments toward the end, I did care for the main man in it, though mostly I didn't feel much sympathy for him throughout; I never did quite understand Jamie, why she would like Bill, why she would leave her husband (boredom?), why she would be attracted to this underworld. And my lack of understanding, in turn, affects the way I feel about this work

No comments: