Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Fiskadoro - Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson (1949-)

Once again, reading Denis Johnson makes me happy to be alive. His writing is like something I have never come across before; it is free and unique and creates worlds that are easily inhabitable. His characters are presented in ways that make them not only familiar, no matter how marginal and foreign they actually are, but they become people you know, people you empathize with, even if they are drug addicted peeping toms. Somehow you find yourself relating to his characters in an almost intimate way.

Fiskadoro is a post-apocalyptic tale about a world left ravaged by World War III, or some form of nuclear catastrophe, wiping out most of civilization and leaving the little that remains to live in a primitive world absolved of memory. The people that remain try to create some form of order to their lives. In a world now devoid of rules and regulations, they suffer loss, anguish and alienation and try to pick up the pieces of who they are and where they've come from, while the memories of their past life slowly dissolve leaving them existing in a state of tabula rasa; their memories left to entropy in the hot sand of the Florida Keys.

The Florida Keys, are now called "Twicetown" because twice atomic bombs were dropped that somehow never detonated, and now these bombs provide the backdrop for all societal gatherings, weddings and funerals that take place in the "town center" which has slowly grown around the bombs. The town is really an evolving barrios, created from anything scavenged the locals can find; the detritus of a foreign world and past life. Old car seats make couches in the roughly constructed huts and abandoned xerox copiers become podiums, while occasionally old radios spit out bits of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, men now seen as prophets or potential messiahs.

The book follows three main characters, Fiskadoro, a 14 year old boy, that like any young boy is trying to find a place for himself in a world with a strange mercurial order. He is slightly embarrassed of his name, which translated can mean fisherman, but which he wishes was translated as harpooner. He is shy, infatuated with women, but too embarrassed to avidly pursue them, instead he decides to take up clarinet playing, being the sole proprietor of one of the only two clarinets possibly to survive the Armageddon.

Fiskadoro asks the manager of the Miami Symphony Orchestra, which is comprised of about 4 people, to teach him to play the clarinet. The manager, Mr. Cheung, agrees and although the lessons seem to go nowhere, Fiskadoro being more enthusiastic than talented, Mr. Cheung slowly becomes a pillar of stability in the boys life. As Fiskadoro's life, built on the sandy dunes of vapid understanding, slowly crumbles around him, one day he walks farther along the beach than ever before, following a swamp girl into the unknown.

"Below the level of the dune the wind was stuck. It was like being swallowed alive. The air choked him, and he recognized the odor - it was hers; she smelled like the swamps, like her birthplace and her home. To follow her over the dunes and out of earshot and eyesight of his people, his head spinning and his throat blocked with the honey of tears, was not to know whether he would live or die. Don't look what I'm doing! he begged the dark sea."

Mr. Cheung is the only protagonist who can tangibly feel that there's something missing. An answer, always out of reach, to the question of why and how. He remembers burning copies of the constitution as a young boy to try and stay warm. His family each took two paragraphs to memorize, and now to soothe himself he repeats the constitution, or names the 50 states, places that no longer exist and terms that are now utterly meaningless. He constantly searches for an answer, his mind racing to make sense of the incompleteness and longing for a past he can't recover. His efforts to find something that will explain the End of the World are perpetually thwarted only leaving him more confused and lost, floating without a lifeline in the detritus of a ravaged history.

The last protagonist is Mr. Cheung's impossibly old grandmother who although has survived through the catastrophe can no longer communicate her thoughts. Mr. Cheung constantly regrets that she never told him the story of her life before it was too late and she only uttered strange guttural noises or sat with her lips moving, producing no sound as if no longer able to remember how to communicate.

"...her leathery old Chinese monkey face collapsing into her secret deliberations, her jaw slack, her smokey breath audible in the silences between Sydney Bechet exercises, and her black eyes so totally opaque he couldn't tell if they were sightless, dead, or coldly burning."

 His grandmother had fallen asleep one night in Key West in a world fraught with conspicuous consumption and politics, only to awake the next morning in a world that had ended and "thenceforth to live her life in the southernmost region of the Quarantine, in a time between civilization and a place ignored by authority."

But the grandmother hadn't always been a "sucked-out old woman with the face of a monkey and the skin of someone who had drowned," she had once been a beautiful girl named Marie, and while she sits in her chair chewing on the wrong end of a cigarette  she slowly ruminates about the past and how she's managed to survive. Her memories are disjointed vignettes, cryptically describing her survival; yet leaving so many questions forever unanswered. Unable to articulate her memories or even distinguish between the real and the imagined, the past and present are a blur of consciousness, she knows only that she survived. She knows only that survival cost her everything, and that she abandoned her family, her will and her past in order to continue living.

What I found to be really terrific about this book was Johnson's ability to create a post-apocalyptic world that rather than being dominated by fear, looting and a "Wild Wild West" mentality, instead is dominated by confusion. The people that survive are left to pick up the pieces while language slowly blends into a pigeon English, a poorly constructed patois of English and Spanish telling of the societal decay that has kept them locked in a dreamless void of understanding. His characters exist in a disembodied dream state, but rather than the apathy of post modernism and the angst of existential nihilism they embody a new way of living embracing the only philosophy that makes sense: survive.

According to the May 1, 1985 New York Times review of this book: "Fiskadoro is not the easiest novel to describe. It's the sort of book that a young Herman Melville might have written had he lived today and studied such disparate works as the Bible, "The Waste Land," "Fahrenheit 451" and "Dog Soldiers," screened "Star Wars" and "Apocalypse Now" several times, dropped a lot of acid and listened to hours of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. It's a wildly ambitious book, full of mythology and philosophical speculation about the nature of time and memory and the endurance of language and art. At times it's beautifully poetic, at times insanely rhetorical, but its strange, hallucinatory vision of America and modern history is never less than compelling."


  1. I love this novel and you have a firm understanding of its many layers! Eric


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