BASS 2015: Denis Johnson, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” from The New Yorker, 3/3/14

Zaan Claassens:  "Sea Maiden"

Zaan Claassens: “Sea Maiden”

After dinner, nobody went home right away. I think we’d enjoyed the meal so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again. These were people we’ve gotten to know a little from Elaine’s volunteer work—nobody from my work, nobody from the ad agency. We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we’d ever heard. One said it was his wife’s voice when she told him she didn’t love him anymore and wanted a divorce. Another recalled the pounding of his heart when he suffered a coronary….
Young Chris Case reversed the direction and introduced the topic of silences. He said the most silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine taking off his right leg outside Kabul, Afghanistan.
 
As for other silences, nobody contributed. In fact, there came a silence now. Some of us hadn’t realized that Chris had lost a leg. He limped, but only slightly. I hadn’t even known he’d fought in Afghanistan. “A land mine?” I said.
“Yes, sir. A land mine.”
“Can we see it?” Deirdre said.
“No, ma’am,” Chris said. “I don’t carry land mines around on my person.”
“No! I mean your leg.”
“It was blown off.”
“I mean the part that’s still there!”
“I’ll show you,” he said, “if you kiss it.”
Shocked laughter. We started talking about the most ridiculous things we’d ever kissed. Nothing of interest. We’d all kissed only people, and only in the usual places. “All right, then,” Chris told Deirdre. “Here’s your chance for the conversation’s most unique entry.”
“No, I don’t want to kiss your leg!”
Although none of us showed it, I think we all felt a little irritated with Deirdre. We all wanted to see.

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

In his Introduction, TC Boyle calls this “a story about stories, about how we’re composed of them and how they comprise our personal mythologies.” This makes sense, structurally as well as narratively, as the story is divided into ten named sections, each of them a little story told by our narrator, adman, husband, and semi-human life form.

There’s detachment, and Detachment, and here we have Detachment. Vignette after vignette, mostly about death, about awkwardness, about bizarre coincidences involving death and awkwardness, and Whit just recounts them all in a level tone. I can see why Johnson, in his TNY interview, referenced Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life, ” a jazz piece I’d never heard before. Like a lot of bluesy-jazz, the story is pain, violence, and passion delivered with the nonchalance of someone who can’t afford to care but needs to be heard.

I was also quite taken with Johnson’s reference to TS Eliot’s “quasi-musical decisions” and started looking at the piece from the viewpoint of sonata form: exposition of themes, development, recapitulation, coda. The story doesn’t fit classical form, but I see themes of observation without participation, disruptive pain, and a confusion about relationships recurring and recombining, with the Casanova and Mermaid sections serving as a restatement of themes, a climax of sorts, and the final section as a coda.

Narrative continuity is provided by a career award that is both an achievement and a reminder of how pathetic his career has been. Along the way we see how pathetic his life has been, how devoid of connection he’s been. The opening scene reads more like a rape scene than anything I’ve read lately, with a company of friends watching, waiting, wanting it to happen. Then there’s the confusion of which wife is dying. The award ceremony literally ends up in the toilet, with a twist that would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. Mermaid ends up in a metaphorical toilet, and is even sadder. Then, in Whit, an intriguingly misplaced introduction at the end, in which we finally learn the narrator’s name – does it matter? Isn’t he a part of us, all along – an attempt to recapture personhood, which serves as acknowledgement of its own failure.

I’ve been putting off this post, not sure how to approach this story. Intimidation and inadequacy is one reason: this is Johnson’s first story in 20 years, and I’ve never read him before. I was surprised at how readable it was. It’s also one of the most reviewed pieces I’ve encountered (both because of Johnson’s status, and because it was in The New Yorker so all of the usual suspects weighed in): I find myself confused by all the clamor, the down side of doing research before writing. It seems to be the standout piece in the collection; even Boyle’s intro gave it far more attention than other stories. So I don’t want to sell it short or be the idiot in the room who says the wrong thing. But I’m not sure what to say about it. Reading was like taking a rowboat boat down a river: never being totally in control, only a thin hull away from disaster, but never feeling truly at risk. Observing – much as the narrator observes. Taking it all in. But detached.

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5 responses to “BASS 2015: Denis Johnson, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” from The New Yorker, 3/3/14

  1. If it makes you feel any better, I talked a whole bunch about how great I thought this story was, and I still don’t really feel like I’ve got it, either. I didn’t do the research you did; I haven’t read any criticism of this story. I didn’t even know who Denis Johnson was. I’m very interested that you mentioned T.S. Eliot, because much of this story made me think of his poem “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” That poem, of course, is about a narrator who feels himself on the shore of the deep waters of the sublime and the mystery of it all, but lacks the courage to dive in. He contrasts himself to Hamlet, casting himself more like the prattling Polonius.

    I see a lot of that in the narrator of this story. He’s titilated by vicarious enjoyment of the erotic adventures of others, but seems to have settled into dull contentment with his third wife after two flame-outs. He managed, once, to find something surprising in the mundane task of making a bank commercial, but he’s gone nowhere since then. He is all wasted potential because he’s been happy to watch things happen to others as he jumps from one person to another like his whole life is a really enjoyable party. He might wish to have a do-over of the party, like all the guests at the party at the beginning of the story do, but he’ll find what we all find. When the party’s over, it’s over.

    I think I see a kind of indictment of story-telling itself here. We enjoy looking at life vicariously through the simulacra of fiction, but we run the risk of substituting the experience of something in fiction for the real thing. We can think that understanding a character can substitute for understanding a person, or that seeing the curtain of truth peeled back for someone in a story can stand in for our own, terrible confrontation with that sea–St. John of the Cross called God a sea.

    When the story ended with that sinking, sad reference to the Sea Maidens, I felt that had to be an echo of Eliot:

    Do I dare to eat a peach?
    I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk along the beach.
    I hear the mermaids singing, each to each,
    I do not think that they will sing to me.

    • Oh, I agree, all mermaids relate back to Prufrock in some way. Odd, though, I hadn’t connected the use of Eliot’s quasi-musical decisions to the mermaid at all. Like it was two separate things.

      I think I tend to meld with the protagonist a lot of times, so my detachment might’ve been in reaction to his. Thing is, I really enjoyed reading this while I was reading. It wasn’t until it was over that I wondered what the story was. But that’s why I blog, so I don’t just go on to the next story, but stop and think for a few minutes.

  2. Pingback: Exit (BASS 2015) | A Just Recompense

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