Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” was originally published in the March 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.


I think Denis Johnson is an exceptional writer, so I was excited to find him in this week’s issue. I’ll have my thoughts up shortly.


“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” by Denis Johnson, is a loose collection of memories that trouble Bill Whitman, a 63-year-old ad-man. In fact, throughout these ten vignettes, Whitman is troubled by thoughts of “repentance and regret,” is troubled by his “crimes” against his first wives, is “confused” by his relationships to other people, is nagged by his relationship to his work (it seems to leave his bowels “in flames”), and throughout, although art beckons to him, he has trouble answering its call.

The reader is troubled by the dreamlike quality of almost every vignette, and even more troubled by the cool distance at which Whitman holds everyone else that he knows. Johnson, a Christian, has placed Whitman in the neighborhood of a couple of churches, but Whitman scarcely notices, just as he scarcely notices his wife Elaine, except to say she is a good cook and a good companion, just as he hardly seems to notice the art he mentions in almost every vignette.

He seems like a contemporary Prufrock, a cool man in blazer and tasseled loafers, lost amid the plenty of life.

I enjoyed this peculiar piece of writing. In places Whitman seemed deranged, like a character from Poe, and in places, the vignettes that Whit recounts feel more like the bad dreams he tells us he suffers from.

What I think made the story work for me was that in places, like the rest of us, Whit seems on the verge of some kind of recognition, but just like the rest of us he usually stops short before he can reach any kind of revelation. Amputation is a theme that is introduced in the first vignette, as if Johnson is warning us that this will be a theme. In Whit’s case, the amputation is a way of describing his distanced, pained involvement in regular life. He is a man distanced from his wife, and almost divorced from his grown daughters. It is as if his family, his friends, his work, his art, and his religion are all phantom limbs. In fact, this is a man who is greyed out: he seems to have no sexual being, despite having had three wives. It is as if his sexual life has been amputated as well.

I also liked the note of the bizarre — the bizarre that lies just beneath the surface of ordinary life. In the fourth vignette, one of his former wives calls to say she is dying and to say she wants to “forgive” him. Whit apparently apologizes for his silences, his secrets, his infidelities and his lies, enough so that the former wife hangs up. Trouble is, Whit is not sure if he was talking with his first wife, Ginny, or his second wife, Jenny. No matter, he thinks. In the end, he says, “both sets of crimes had been the same.”

But what I mean by the way amputation works in this story is this. He simply stops with there. He has no concern for which wife is actually dead. He has no recollection of either wife’s beauty, allure, or kindness; it is as if his own “crimes” against them obliterated any memory of their actual life. He feels no sorrow or pity for the suffering she may be actually enduring at the present. He feels no shame or regret at his present crime: his aloofness.

As I write about this story, I realize how much I like it. There is a note of Dickens here, with a man sensing that his life has been squandered. (Money is another active device in this story.) There is the note of Poe, with the man who does not realize how deranged he actually is, despite his orderly presentation in blazer and tasseled loafers. There is, in each disorderly vignette, a lot left for the reader to think about. Johnson himself is about 65, and I recognize the impulse to look back on life. What I enjoy about this story is that it is so hallucinatory that it feels fresh, and in addition, the hallucinatory, somewhat like a Chagall painting, allows for a lot of Whit’s life to be floated out there.

Art, painting and writing comprise several subjects of the story, and I notice Whit’s name, an amputation of Whitman, with the man’s corollary amputation of empathy and personal connection. There is an ambition in the piece that rewards the reader.

But here I regret to admit that I can only recommend the story with this caveat: I’m going to have to wait for my paper issue to arrive before I can give it a second read.

I am away from home and using my HP lap-top. The New Yorker “Archives” format is almost unreadable on my device. My lap-top is large, but The New Yorker print is tiny. When I tap the Archive page to enlarge it, the print becomes so fuzzy as to be almost equally unreadable. It’s like reading microfiche. (Does anyone even remember microfiche?)

As I poked around the internet reading various reviews of Johnson, I noticed that my laptop could handle The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic Monthly with ease. In all, my laptop rendered the print from those publishers highly readable. In contrast, The New Yorker “Archives” print is ridiculously inadequate. At home, my Dell desktop is able to make The New Yorker “Archives” print legible, but not large. I usually print the story, because the on-line experience is so miserable.

Of course, this may all reflect on my lack of technical expertise. But I counter — on both of my Windows devices, I can read any number of sources with great ease. I just can’t read The New Yorker Archives with any ease. In addition, the “Archives” make it difficult on the reader to move from section to section. I would love to hear from anyone who could explain why The New Yorker “Archives” needs to be so difficult to negotiate and read. They should take a look at The Paris Review. There’s a web site that has magnificently presented print.

My apologies to Denis Johnson. I recommend his story, and I think it benefits from a leisurely encounter and a second reading. I look forward to that second reading when I get my paper issue on Thursday.

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By |2014-02-24T13:55:51-04:00February 24th, 2014|Categories: Denis Johnson, New Yorker Fiction|9 Comments


  1. Betsy February 24, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    Hi Trevor –

    Just wanted to update you on my technical travails. As you know, I had difficulty actually reading the New Yorker digital edition this morning. The text was quite blurry.

    I talked tonight with a helpful person on the New Yorker help line. (1-800-825-2510).

    She suggested that a blurry page indicates that perhaps it was taking a while to load. That may have been – although the situation never improved this morning during the time I took to read the entire story.

    She is right about this being a changeable situation. Tonight I can get a clear text image. I could also enlarge the text one time by clicking once on the page. At that point, the plus-minus bar will go up no more. We tried enlarging the text using the ctrl/+ command, but it wouldn’t stick.

    As for the blurry connections, she also recommended signing off and out and starting again, which I had not done. Finally, she suggested I check the bars on my connection, which I had not thought to do, given this urban connection is far superior to the one I use at home. None the less, that was a good suggestion. Often it is the simplest thing that gives the quickest fix.

    So my expertise with the web-site is clearly a work in progress. When the New Yorker story is free to anyone, it appears on the main web page, and the print is gorgeous. It is only when you have to access the story through the digital archive that the quality of the print is quite different, even when all the stars are in alignment.

    It appears that if I were using a Kindle, for instance, or an i-Pad, I would probably be able to easily enlarge the print to my own comfort level.

    At any rate, I was glad to talk with someone who wanted to help. In addition, she volunteered that she would pass my remarks up the line.

    Sorry to burden everyone with my luddite-type difficulties!

    Back to work.

  2. Trevor February 25, 2014 at 3:12 am

    I think the archive is a wonderful tool, but you’re right that it isn’t the most stable or user friendly interface. For instance, I don’t like that when I search for an old article and click on the read in our archive link that it simply takes me to the newest issue and I have to procure the issue and page from there. I also remember trying out the archive on my iPad and finding it unreadable (this may have change in the time since I last tried). And there still is not way to print it in decent quality. It always comes out like a copy of a copy. I still prefer it to the New Yorker app, though. I like reading the stories in magazine format rather than in the app.

    And I agree that the Paris Review archive (and app) are vastly superior.

  3. danthelawyer March 1, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    On the technical side, you may want to try a readability enhancer like “readability”, “pocket”, “instapaper”, or Evernote’s “clearly”. They all take text on a web page, strip it of ads, and make the print large and clear.

    On the story side, I so much enjoyed Betsy’s review — as always, your clear-eyed (hehe) reading of the story added immeasurably to my understanding of the story. And I just loved your characterization of Whit as “grayed out”.

    I rather liked the story when I read it, though it felt somewhat insubstantial. Now I have a better understanding that this very insubstantiality is the point. Thank you.

  4. Archer March 1, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Wonderful thoughts, Betsy.

    I was excited when I saw that Denis Johnson had a new story in TNY! Johnson is a master of the short form — Jesus’ Son is one of the great collections of the last couple decades and Train Dreams is magnificent. Aside from an excerpt from his novel Tree of Smoke, I believe this is his first story in the magazine in over twenty years, which is most welcome.

    As for the story itself, I wasn’t disappointed. Jesus’ Son was largely about hardscrabble life on the margins, so it was initially a bit jarring to see Johnson write what appeared to be a typical “New Yorker story”, with its upwardly mobile protagonist, dinner parties, broken marriages and urban malaise. But, as Betsy says, what unfolds is a very interesting and very perceptive rumination on late middle age. I really like the Dickens comparison. With Whitman’s disenchantment and haunted sense of past transgressions, I was put in mind of both Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol.

    That bizarre, almost hallucinatory quality is all Johnson, though. I agree the vignette with the phone call from the dying ex-wife is particularly striking. The neutered sexual aspect that Betsy alludes to seems important too (think of the proposition he receives in the men’s room — that may or may not have been from the son of his dead former colleague). I admit I’m still trying to parse the significance of the blonde woman in the bar, and how it relates to the title. A rich, fascinating story.

  5. Betsy March 2, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks, Dan, for the technical advice. I will give these readability enhancers a try. Thanks, Archer, for recommending Train Dreams and Jesus’ Son. And thanks to both of you for your kind words to me.

    And my apologies to everyone for distracting from the importance of Denis Johnson’s story with my own luddite difficulties. Johnson’s story is just as Archer says – “A rich, fascinating story.”

  6. Betsy March 9, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    I admire Lorin Stein’s concision regarding “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” in the Paris Review: (

  7. Betsy March 9, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    See Jeffey Eugenides in The Paris Review on how Denis Johnson achieves unique power in the short story form. (

    Calling Johnson “brilliant”, Eugenides says: “How do you keep a narrative brief and still have it function as a story? Compared to writing novels, writing short fiction is mainly a question of knowing what to leave out. What you leave in must imply everything that’s missing.”

    For one thing, as in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”, Eugenides shows how Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” uses hallucination to compress the story telling.

    Eugenides essay is a fascinating take on how Johnson achieves his effects, how his storytelling is “blisteringly acute”.

  8. Betsy March 10, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    After time to re-read and reflect, I appreciate the grandeur of this story. For me, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is great..

    Its ambition, sprawl and capaciousness allow for any number of us to read and see ourselves in it, see others in it, have different ideas about it, and still be within what Johnson actually says.

    For one, I find the story enormously comforting, as it allows for moments of feeling at one with things to be what makes living with life possible. I like it that the story allows for those moments to be read in different ways. One person might see these moments as grace, another might see them as a kind of Buddhist calm. Another might see these moments just as what Johnson says: the “certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you…”

    I really like the form – the collage of ten very short stories which are unified by the single narrator and a variety of other continuous threads, but whose gaps and juxtapositions are part of the story’s meaning.

    “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” thus leaves a lot out and allows for the figure in the carpet to emerge –

    -the silences that are inevitable between people;

    -the way solitude or meditation can allow for “the kind of moment or visitation…when the flow of life twists and untwists, all in a blink – think of a taut ribbon flashing”;

    -the way art must be made rather than owned, even if the art is primitive or in the realm of the outsider’s art, even if the art is as unconventional as Caesarina Fido’s recipe book;

    -the way love is not necessarily expressed by sex but can be that moment when a wife honors her quiet husband’s momentary openness – the way Whit’s wife “sat me down beside her and [they] went through the [Caesarina Fido’s recipe} notebook page by page, side by side.”

    (There are innumerable other mentions of unconventional love,

    -the way the story honors loneliness, as in the toilet Casanova and as when Maria Elena, in the bar, says, “I am a prisoner here.”

    -the way the story is paradoxical, as when Whit says “…orderly financial exchange [is] the basis of harmony. Money tames the beast. Money is civilization. The end of the story is money.” A group of people could argue for hours over what in the world Johnson means by this.

    -the way magic is an understated thing – “A magic thread, a magic sword”, a magic horse” – or a chance encounter.

    -the way the title, and especially the word “largesse” plays into the idea of chance gifts, or grace, or peace, or feeling as if you are the “proprietor” of New York – or of your life, or of life.

    This is a great story.

  9. Ken March 27, 2014 at 5:19 am

    I agree. This is so amazingly rich, I am almost without words. I wonder if this is part of his next book. I’d be happy to spend more time with Whit. I also like the way this slowly deepens. The first two stories while fascinating have a big of drunken gamesmanship about them with the second–the rich man enjoying his ability to destroy art he owns–even a bit facile although the first one has the haunting image of the woman looking at the man’s amputated knee. But with the story of the man of death row and from that point on, the tone gets richer, deeper, stranger. I read and enoyed Tree of Smoke and want to read more by Johnson.

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