BY MIKE BEEMAN
Author: Denis Johnson
2009, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Best ebook deal: Not Available
With Nobody Move Denis Johnson joins the growing league of literary writers trying their hands at genre writing for fun and profit, and garnering remarkable success for their efforts. In the last several years we’ve seen Michael Chabon and Philip Roth tackle Alternative History, Cormac McCarthy move into the Apocalypse genre, and Thomas Pynchon releases a detective novel for some reason (imagine yourself saying that to a friend only a few years ago). It makes you wonder who will be next.
Myself, I’m looking forward to Marylin Robinson’s upcoming novel, a multi-generational chronicling of a family of werewolves. Given the recent trend towards crossing over the genre lines, Jonhson’s foray into crime fiction is a bit surprising considering his last novel won the National Book Award (i.e. huge, literary prize), but not hugely shocking.
And like Chabon, Roth, McCarthy, and Pynchon, Johnson’s foray into genre writing is a successful one. I’m a little late to the party with my review, and am not sure what more I can say that hasn’t been said. This book is a blast to read. The pace moves quickly, the characters are well-drawn through dialogue and brief descriptions, the setting is fully realized, the language is sparse and strong. I read this in two days, weekdays, around my work, commuting, and life schedule. If it was the weekend, I probably would have gone through it all at once.
I think Johnson’s experiment into crime fiction succeeds for the same reason other literary authors succeed when crossing genres: he is a fan of the form. Jimmy Luntz, Johnson’s anti-hero, inhabits a world characters from Jesus’s Son don’t exactly live in, but would recognize as existing concurrently to their own. If “shithead” had made a few more mistakes, borrowed or stole money and/or drugs from the wrong person, or if his story had gone on a little bit longer, he could have ended up as Luntz. Maybe he did. We’d have to ask Johnson. So writing a crime novel wasn’t too much of a stretch for Johnson in the same way that writing a science fiction novel wasn’t a huge stretch for Chabon, and Pynchon’s move into the detective genre is a good fit for someone whose work regularly features paranoia and conspiracy (the detective’s bread and butter).
In short, these authors are fans of the new forms they write in. But unlike Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Johnson does not transcend his new genre as Chabon, McCarthy, and Roth have done. He doesn’t get Denis Johnson all over it. The result is a novel another writer could have written. The lyrical language, the hallucinogenic epiphanies, the introspective narrator and vivid imagery readers of Jesus’s Son will recognize can all be found in Nobody Move, but they are subdued and tamed, brought in line by the genre.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a great novel, and one I recommend without reservations to anyone, anywhere, who likes to read cool books. Crime fiction fans will not be disappointed by a watered-down crossover, and literary fiction fans may find themselves searching out the authors who influenced Johnson’s work.
But when literary authors crossover into the genre realm -and vice-versa- it is important they bring their own style and voice with them intact. Instead of a book that is obviously a crime novel and just happens to be written by Denis Johnson, we should have a book that is obviously written by Denis Jonhson and just happens to be a crime novel. Nobody Move is the former and, as much as I liked it, I think what readers really need to further push the boundaries of genre during these kinds of experiments is the latter instead.