At a pivotal moment toward the end of this novella, the protagonist, a college professor in the Midwest of the U.S., writes and underlines, “The name of the world” on the back of his business card and gives it to Flower Cannon, a young woman. This occurs in an abandoned, off-limits bunker where Flower lives, during a kind of fortune-telling session that she holds for him.
This scene transitions professor Michael Reed from his living coma (suffered because of the deaths of his wife and daughter five years prior) to an engagement with life. This scene feels like he’s asking the identity of the universe he’s about to re-enter, but author Denis Johnson might mean something a lot deeper, I haven’t figured it out. At story’s outset, Professor Reed watches his life in a detached way, seeing things as though from a distance and feeling nothing about them. However, he stumbles into an art classroom and seeing the model, who is not motionless or passive, snaps him out of his funk immediately.
He begins to live again, but he needs more lessons, a stamp of approval, and of course this must come from Flower. Reed knows that his life will now head in unpredictable directions, but although intimacy with Flower seems possible, that doesn’t turn out to be the point. Flower is a portal of another kind. She lives in a Spartan, featureless bunker, but is surrounded by her art and her quirky collection of mundane objects. It serves as the anteroom for the rest of his life, and contains some suggested materials for it. Flower has “… bits of glass and shards of mirrors, strips and patches of astronomical and topographical maps, nautical charts … She kept glass jars of buttons and boxes of marbles. Here was the lid of a large box like a tray holding multicolored strings and yarns, the silvery, papery bark of a birch tree, small chrome and plastic emblems …” These raw materials share the space with easels turned toward the wall, works ready to be considered as art, or as not art. It’s all potentiality at this point.
Their conversation brings out the amazing fact that Flower has two sisters (Professor Reed: “Sisters! There are more of you? What a world.”), one of whom her hippie parents named Kali, the Hindu god of destruction and rebirth. From the Hindu Tridevi, or Three Goddesses, Flower herself evokes Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, art, and dance. She also encompasses the cosmic consciousness, and so some sense can be made of Prof. Reed’s “request” of her, for the name of the world.
This is the story of a quest, or rather the prelude to a quest, because it climaxes at the quest’s beginning. Mr. Johnson tells this sympathetic story in a short, powerful burst, and the novella form serves him so perfectly. Of contemporary American writers, no one serves up the same combination of straight-ahead muscular prose and challenging symbolic construct as National Book Award-winning Denis Johnson. This is superb, a gem.