Anatomy of Melancholy

Denis Johnson: novelist of the crazy impulse
photo: Cindy Johnsoon
Denis Johnson: novelist of the crazy impulse

"Am I making sense in this account?" Reed asks the reader late in the novel. Not entirely, but the professor's dilemma throughout is his relentless clinging to sense and acting too much like an adult. Johnson frees him by demolishing meaning in the end as well as he evokes it at the beginning. Reed's strange meeting with Flower clearly moves him to a hilariously childish departure from the college town, long-suppressed tears, and eventually a job signaling a return to the world. It's a happy, somewhat tacked-on ending. But if Name's conclusion doesn't quite hold together, this doesn't diminish Johnson's brilliance as a writer—or his point that mourning can become a dull habit, that understanding it too well might only deepen the rut. Grief, The Name of the World powerfully suggests, is a messy thing, requiring a messy exit.

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