The acclaimed author of Jesus' Son and Already Dead returns with a beautiful, haunting, and darkly comic novel. The Name of the World is a mesmerizing portrait of a professor at a Midwestern university who has been patient in his grief after an accident takes the lives of his wife and child and has permitted that grief to enlarge him.
Michael Reed is living a posthumous life. In spite of outward appearances -- he holds a respectable university teaching position; he is an articulate and attractive addition to local social life -- he's a dead man walking.
Nothing can touch Reed, nothing can move him, although he observes with a mordant clarity the lives whirling vigorously around him. Of his recent bereavement, nearly four years earlier, he observes, "I'm speaking as I'd speak of a change in the earth's climate, or the recent war."
Facing the unwelcome end of his temporary stint at the university, Reed finds himself forced "to act like somebody who cares what happens to him. " Tentatively he begins to let himself make contact with a host of characters in this small academic town, souls who seem to have in common a tentativeness of their own. In this atmosphere characterized, as he says, "by cynicism, occasional brilliance, and small, polite terror," he manages, against all his expectations, to find people to light his way through his private labyrinth.
Elegant and incisively observed, The Name of the World is Johnson at his best: poignant yet unsentimental, replete with the visionary imaginative detail for which his work is known. Here is a tour de force by one of the most astonishing writers at work today.
- PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
Spare, introspective and arresting, Johnson's (Jesus' Son; Already Dead) new novel explores a middle-aged college professor's attempts to come to terms with the gruesome twist of fate that has robbed him of his family. After losing his wife, Anne, and daughter, Elsie, in a tragic automobile accident, ex-political speechwriter Mike Reed seeks refuge in the insular world of academia. Cloistered deep in the bosom of an unnamed Midwestern university, he teaches history, halfheartedly tries to obtain a research grant and reflects morosely on his losses. In episodic vignettes, Mike fails to impress his departmental superiors with his professorial aptitude, visits a Native American casino where he gets involved in a pointless barroom imbroglio, and becomes obsessed with the eccentric but spirited Flower Cannon, a sexy red-headed student/performance-artist/cellist/stripper. Johnson depicts Mike's emotional paralysis and anguished bouts of uncertain self-exploration with pellucid clarity and uncommon sensitivity. His gift for restrained yet elegant prose is evident, as is his ability to blend erudite reflection with hints of humor. A simple painting, charting a gradually deteriorating geometric progression, that Mike encounters in a campus museum early in the novel leads him to half-seriously opine that the picture "illustrated the church's grotesque pearling around its traditional heart, explained the pernicious extrapolating rules and observances of governmentsAimplicated all of us in a gradual apostasy from every perfect thing we find or make." Though some may find it pretentious, the novel is crammed with similar observations mixing cynicism and self-aware humor, ambitious theorizing and multidisciplinary savvy. In the end, Johnson's eloquent examination of one man's persistent inability to extricate himself from the tenacity of grief manages to be both lyrical and raw. (July) FYI: A movie based on Jesus' Son will open in June.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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April 13, 2001
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