Slanted Description in the Short Stories of Denis Johnson

For a long time I resisted reading Denis Johnson. I have no idea why, especially now that I’ve read Jesus’ Son, which has shot immediately to the top of my life list of story collections. It’s not only the mesmerizing hallucinatory power of Johnson’s drug writing, a sub-genre I have a special fondness for, having dabbled in it a few times myself. It’s something about the cumulative power of the stories themselves, which are beautifully written, irresistibly suspenseful, profoundly resonant in their poetic impact, and mostly brief enough to digest in a single sitting.

In trying to pick out a single craft element to write a post on, I considered analyzing Johnson’s use of foreshadowing in his famous story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” He comes right out with the narrative’s climax, then spends the rest of the story building up to it. It is an interesting technique, but really, if you read the story yourself, it’s pretty obvious how Johnson is able to maintain the reader’s vital interest even after (and perhaps even largely because of) having given away the main plot event at the outset. I suggest you do read “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” It’s highly instructive from a plot perspective, and more importantly, it’s a great hellish express train of a story.

What I thought I’d do instead is to call attention to a few instances of Johnson’s use of slanted or psychologically refracted description, which, for me, does much of the collection's heavy lifting in terms of the outstanding qualities I alluded to at the beginning: the stories’ irresistible suspense, their lyric beauty, and the powerful resonance with which they strike a susceptible reader.

All the houses on the riverbank – a dozen or so – were abandoned. The same company, you could tell, had built them all, and then painted them four different colors. The windows in the lower stories were empty of glass. We passed alongside them and I saw that the ground floors of these buildings were covered with silt. Sometime back a flood had run over the banks, cancelling everything. But now the river was flat and slow. Willows stroked the water with their hair.

Wayne used a pry bar, and I had a shiny hammer with a blue rubber grip. We put the pry points in the seams of the wall and started tearing away the Sheetrock. It came loose with a sound like old men coughing.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is about these descriptions (from a strange, disturbingly beautiful story called “Work”) that makes them so compelling. They are tied inextricably to the story’s overall feeling of melancholy, of deathly numbness and stupidity. The thing about these passages that makes them so interesting for a writer is not only that Johnson does such a good job of painting an existential attitude. It’s that he brings up so many questions without doing much at all in terms of plot. Using nothing more than slanted description to create an atmosphere, Johnson has made it almost impossible not to read on.

One further example, this one from the story “Emergency.” Two friends get lost in a snowstorm:

The only light visible was a streak of sunset flickering beneath the hem of the clouds. We headed that way.
We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, identical markers over soldier’s graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.
Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in, man!”
“The drive-in . . . ” I wasn’t sure what these words meant.
“They’re showing movies in a fucking blizzard!” Georgie screamed.
“I see. I thought it was something else,” I said.

I’m left fairly speechless by this passage, so I won’t bother to try and parse it. The main thing I want convey to you is this. There are people out there who will tell you to beware of description. Don’t load your fiction with it; it slows down the pace. Description is obsolete, a relic of the flowery 19th century, when people had fewer distractions, more time to read, and a longer attention span.

Don’t listen to these people. Description is a central element of modern fiction, every bit as important as plot and dialog. It’s one of the main ways we have of putting our characters in touch with the deep mysteries that come of our inextricable connection to a concrete, mysterious, and sentient universe. If you have any doubt about what I’m saying  – or even if you don’t – please go read Jesus’ Son.

For more on the role of description in fictional narratives, please click here.