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.
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.