I'm not sure what it is that is missing from this book - passion perhaps, or the feeling that Johnson is reined in somehow by his protagonist, Mike Reed. It is a very adult, very world-weary book concerning a man who has never recovered from the death of his wife and daughter, four years ago, in a traffic accident. The most affecting moment in the book for me is when he is remembering the moment that they set off in an elderly neighbour's car and Mike leaned in at the window meaning to tell him to take the gravel track (the weather is icy and the neighbour is not a steady driver) into town, but in the end says something else, distracted by the neighbour.
Reed is an academic, having worked in Washington for a Senator for several years previous to getting a track post as a History Professor. He doesn't get tenure, but isn't bothered. To be frank, nothing much bothers him since he lost his family. The scenes where he is at various meetings and get-togethers don't resonate with much beyond boredom. He is fascinated however by a painting by an African American slave, in one of the halls of the college and he makes time to stand looking at this (abstract) painting, observed by the (African American) security guard whose job it is to patrol the gallery. He is also fascinated by the skating pond used by the students and the patterns they make, all going round one way. These two abstract fascinations seem linked by the flaws in the patterns made, rather than anything else, but their significance is not overtly linked in his mind.
Nothing much seems to happen until he becomes aware of a female student, a wild character called Flower who gives demonstrations of shaving her pudenda, plays the cello (not very well) and almost always wins the amateur stripping competitions held at a nearby roadhouse. She has a stash of envelopes that she keeps, in each of which is a sentence written by a friend or acquaintance, but she refuses to share these with him and he leaves. This is, fittingly, more or less where the book ends, in lack of (dreaded cliché) closure, rather than any kind of new beginning.
The book has no revelations to offer, Flower is just a blip in Reed's unconnected life. Johnson's use of dialogue is faultless, though his writing contains little of the deeply felt energy I've experienced in all his other books, making the novel seem soggy, affectless and somehow compromised. I couldn't identify with the main character and there was little else to grasp in this wavering, unsatisfying novel. I very much wanted to like it, and I was always fully engaged by the skilful writing, waiting for the iron to strike. But, this time, for me, he missed the anvil every time.
'The Name of the World' is one of those fantastic novellas; despite its brevity (100 or so pages) there is so much here. This makes it similar to Camus's 'The Outsider' or 'The Fall' (more the latter): I have just finished it for the 2nd time and have got much more out of it (and can't wait to read it again!). Its concise nature is close to the Carveresque-style of 'Jesus' Son'- and the right change to make after the epic-'Already Dead' (which David Lynch should film!). This is similar to DeLillo's 'The Body Artist' (after the epic 'Underworld'); though 'TNOTW' is much better than that!
It tells the story of a widower treading water in tenure at a Midwestern university; it is set in the late 80's/early 90's and is about 'liberty'. I felt it to be similar in part to Kieslowski's 'Three Colours Blue'; if Raymond Carver could have written novels this is what it would be like...The novella moves between the deadend of the present to the past and takes in a future offerred by a student named Flower... This is a great book, as good (and as different) to 'Resusitation of a Hanged Man', 'Jesus Son' & 'Already Dead'. It is as good as the recent Saul Bellow's ('The Actual' & 'Ravelstein')- though without the sneering tone of that intellectual giant!...'The Name of the World' is one of the best novels of recent years; heck, any year. Pity a British novelist couldn't write anything as sublime as this! BUY!!!!
After the epic Nietzchean noir of 'Already Dead' Johnson gives us a shorter work, more akin to the portraits of 'Jesus' Son'...However, this novella (or short novel) has much to offer; it could be seen as Salinger writing about adults...It tells the story of a college lecturer, coasting his tenure after the death of wife and child in a car crash- in this way it is similar to Kryzsztof Kieslowski's film 'Three Colours: Blue'- the protaganist of each has to come to terms with the events and find a new meaning in life in order to move ahead...This could be seen as another 'campus novel'- it is not a million miles away from aspects of DeLillo's 'White Noise'. But as ever the musical sentences and simple poetry of Johnson wins through...The nearest American fiction has come to this novel of late is Saul Bellow's 'The Actual'- which shares the idea of 'those left behind..'...This book, despite it's slim appearance, is full of life and the things that make it terrible and wonderful and keep us here...Johnson seems to be moving away from the noir elements of 'Resucitation of a hanged man' and 'Already Dead'- with this kind of editing and this depth of introspection you can bet that he will be seen as one of THE major U.S. writers in time to come...This book is a good intoduction to Johnson; could his publishers think about making his works out of print in the UK available? (Fiskadoro; Angels; Stars at Noon...)This book is ideally read to some American Music Club/Mark Eitzel or, even Red House Painters...America, we may loathe your president, whoring himself to oil companies and pretending his daddy didn't help Sadam Hussain back into power, but we are jealous of your art...'The Name of the World' ends at the start of the Gulf War; a great book for the beginning of this century...