Cover image for The name of the world
The name of the world
Johnson, Denis, 1949-2017.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2000]

Physical Description:
129 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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The acclaimed author of Jesus' Son and Already Dead returns with a beautiful, haunting, and darkly comic novel. The Name of the World is a mesmerizing portrait of a professor at a Midwestern university who has been patient in his grief after an accident takes the lives of his wife and child and has permitted that grief to enlarge him.

Michael Reed is living a posthumous life. In spite of outward appearances--he holds a respectable university teaching position; he is an articulate and attractive addition to local social life--he's a dead man walking.

Nothing can touch Reed, nothing can move him, although he observes with a mordant clarity the lives whirling vigorously around him. Of his recent bereavement, nearly four years earlier, he observes, "I'm speaking as I'd speak of a change in the earth's climate, or the recent war."

Facing the unwelcome end of his temporary stint at the university, Reed finds himself forced "to act like somebody who cares what happens to him. " Tentatively he begins to let himself make contact with a host of characters in this small academic town, souls who seem to have in common a tentativeness of their own. In this atmosphere characterized, as he says, "by cynicism, occasional brilliance, and small, polite terror," he manages, against all his expectations, to find people to light his way through his private labyrinth.

Elegant and incisively observed, The Name of the World is Johnson at his best: poignant yet unsentimental, replete with the visionary imaginative detail for which his work is known. Here is a tour de force by one of the most astonishing writers at work today.

Author Notes

Denis Johnson was born in Munich, Germany on July 1, 1949. He received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from the University of Iowa. He published his first book of poetry, The Man Among the Seals, at the age of 19. However, addictions to alcohol and drugs derailed him and he was in a psychiatric ward at the age of 21. He was sober by the early 1980s.

Along with writing several volumes of poetry, Johnson wrote short stories for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. His novels included Angels, Jesus' Son, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Already Dead, Nobody Move, Train Dreams, and The Laughing Monsters. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for Tree of Smoke. He also received the Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts, the Robert Frost Award, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. He died of liver cancer on May 24, 2017 at the age of 67.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The sudden death of his wife and daughter has left Mike Reed--once a high-school social-studies teacher, then a U.S. senator's speechwriter, and now an adjunct associate professor of history at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest--quite numb. His inability to grieve has given him a reputation among the faculty as being detached, exiled, paralyzed--a regular J. Alfred Prufrock. With tenure no longer an option and in dire need of sensation, he attempts to become unstuck. Flower Cannon, a student half his age, becomes the object of his erotic and paternal feelings as well as his resentment of her youth and vitality. Johnson adds Mike Reed to the oddly appealing assortment of walking wounded and lost souls that includes characters in his darkly gothic Already Dead (1997) and lyrical Jesus' Son (1992). Although a college campus is a much more subtle landscape for Johnson's characters in crisis than some of the locales of his previous novels, his depiction of academic life as a sort of purgatory rings true. --Benjamin Segedin

Publisher's Weekly Review

Spare, introspective and arresting, Johnson's (Jesus' Son; Already Dead) new novel explores a middle-aged college professor's attempts to come to terms with the gruesome twist of fate that has robbed him of his family. After losing his wife, Anne, and daughter, Elsie, in a tragic automobile accident, ex-political speechwriter Mike Reed seeks refuge in the insular world of academia. Cloistered deep in the bosom of an unnamed Midwestern university, he teaches history, halfheartedly tries to obtain a research grant and reflects morosely on his losses. In episodic vignettes, Mike fails to impress his departmental superiors with his professorial aptitude, visits a Native American casino where he gets involved in a pointless barroom imbroglio, and becomes obsessed with the eccentric but spirited Flower Cannon, a sexy red-headed student/performance-artist/cellist/stripper. Johnson depicts Mike's emotional paralysis and anguished bouts of uncertain self-exploration with pellucid clarity and uncommon sensitivity. His gift for restrained yet elegant prose is evident, as is his ability to blend erudite reflection with hints of humor. A simple painting, charting a gradually deteriorating geometric progression, that Mike encounters in a campus museum early in the novel leads him to half-seriously opine that the picture "illustrated the church's grotesque pearling around its traditional heart, explained the pernicious extrapolating rules and observances of governmentsÄimplicated all of us in a gradual apostasy from every perfect thing we find or make." Though some may find it pretentious, the novel is crammed with similar observations mixing cynicism and self-aware humor, ambitious theorizing and multidisciplinary savvy. In the end, Johnson's eloquent examination of one man's persistent inability to extricate himself from the tenacity of grief manages to be both lyrical and raw. (July) FYI: A movie based on Jesus' Son will open in June. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This lean but vivid and affecting novel drops us into the world of Michael Reed, who has managed to cocoon himself in a stable but inert life as a university professor after his wife and child are killed in an auto accident. Four years later, his contract expired and with no concrete future plans, Reed knows he needs to finish mourning and move on but can't quite figure out how. A sort of salvation comes in the form of Flower Cannon, a free-spirited student who serendipitously reappears in his path. A simple plot, but for Johnson, it's all in the details, from the hothouse community of academic colleagues down to the simple wisdom of the man who shines your shoes. Opting for quiet revelations, the novel also skillfully weaves away from expected paths; the burdened Reed doesn't explode in random violence, and Flower and Reed don't have a tempestuous love affair. Perhaps best known for the hallucinatory Jesus' Son, Johnson has created a contrasting work suggesting that his talents reach across a wide canvas. Highly recommended.DMarc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Name of the World Chapter One Since my early teens I've associated everything to do with college, the "academic life," with certain images borne toward me, I suppose, from the TV screen, in particular from the films of the 1930s they used to broadcast relentlessly when I was a boy, and especially from a single scene: Fresh-faced young people come in from an autumn night to stand around the fireplace in the home of a beloved professor. I smell the bonfire smoke in their clothes and the professor's aromatic pipe tobacco, and I feel the general, unquestioned sweetness of youth, of autumn, of college -- the sweetness of this life. Not that I was ever in love with this dream, or even particularly drawn to it. It's just that I concluded it existed somewhere. My own undergraduate career stretched over six or seven years, interrupted by bouts of work and transfers to a second and then a third institution, and I remember it all as a succession of requirements and endorsements. I didn't attend the football games. I don't remember coming across any bonfires. By several of my teachers I was impressed, even awed, and their influence shaped me as much as anything else along the way, but I never had a look inside any of their homes. All this by way of saying it came as a surprise, the gratitude with which I accepted an invitation to teach at a university. When the chance came along, I was nearly fifty. After college I'd taught high school for better than a decade, earning postgraduate credits in the summers. One day I wrote a letter to a presidential candidate, advising him on policy and strategy (this was Senator Thomas Thom of Oklahoma; he faded early in the primaries), and although I'd had no idea people who wrote such letters were ever heeded, much less hired, in a blink I went from Mr. Reed the Social Studies person to Mike Reed the speechwriter, staff floater, and cloakroom confidant, and spent nearly twelve years in Washington. I quit just after Senator Thom began his fifth term. I took the job at the University when my book idea was turned down -- I'd offered to witness to power's corrupting influence, but apparently no such witness was required. Then I found myself in the Comparative Studies wing of the Humanities Building, although I was actually an Adjunct Associate Professor of History. (The Humanities Department was long ago dissolved to form more departments, bigger departments; the old building houses budgetary mavericks, grant-sponsored programs and the like, experiments that live out their funding periods and fade away. Somehow this became the home of History.) I ran small seminars, asking bright, undirected students to read books I'd already read and then listening while they presented papers to the rest of the group for criticism. In other words, I didn't do anything. This would have interfered not at all with a glorious future in that place, but I didn't bother with the other side of business there, either, the meetings and the memos and so on. Four renewals was about the limit for my type of appointment, and I was near the end of my third. After next year, they'd move me along. Meanwhile, I was on vacation. But people in positions like mine have to keep alert for new ones, and so I found myself one evening dining in a group of eleven at the home of Ted MacKey, Chairman of the School of Music. The surroundings came close to the 1930s moving picture of this life: the snowflakes coming down outside in a college-town night that threatened to add to itself the jingling of sleigh bells and the songs of young carolers, while inside the house, lodge-like in its dimensions, we all drank hot buttered rum around a warm blaze that sent a changing light under the lustrous mantel and onto windows of leaded glass, and onto a black antique telescope and a monstrous beige globe I would have bet presented the world as it had been long ago, but would never be again. We drank hot buttered rum in the atmosphere, in other words, of a very expensive gift shop. It oppressed me. It oppressed me although I'd been given my supper in plenty of homes exactly like it at other universities and in Washington, and I'd even eaten here at Ted MacKey's, two winters previous. It oppressed me for that thought as much as any other, maybe, the mental image of a thousand such dwellings pressed window to window across the wide undifferentiated air of a plunging chasm, and me with a spoon and a bowl and a smile in every one of them. The dinner that night honored a distinguished visitor to our campus, the Israeli composer Izaak Andropov. As it happened, he'd taken a fever, and didn't attend. I was here to make a new acquaintance, the head of a University fiefdom called the Forum for Interpretive Scholarship. The Forum had money. They had Associate-level jobs. They had offices, salaries, everything. Best of all they had no duties, no classes. Or so Ted MacKey had promised me, letting out this information in a casual way, as if I might not be looking around for another slot someplace the year after next. This happened all the time, that is, people I hardly knew often suggested, one way or another, that they'd like to help me. I was the object of much goodwill, in fact, sometimes because the man I'd worked for in Washington was disliked, and I'd quit him; or, conversely, because he was liked, and I'd worked for him. In any case, here was a chance to stretch out my vacation another academic year or two. Nothing ever happened at the Forum beyond an occasional presentation by one of the scholars, most of them emeriti from Big Ten universities and such, who just dragged out the lectures they'd been dragging out this... The Name of the World . Copyright © by Denis Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from The Name of the World by Denis Johnson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.