Monday, June 18, 2007

Novel Excerpts

I must say that I dislike most mainstream magazines' reluctance to admit that the short story you are reading is actually a novel excerpt. Sometimes you can tell, and sometimes you can't, and sometimes you suspect that what you're reading is an excerpt, because the writer's bio says that a new novel is coming out; and sometimes you wonder if maybe the thing you are certain is a novel excerpt is in fact a short story which just happens to have been published with a novel fast on its heels.

Anyway, there's a new Denis Johnson story in the New Yorker, which is kind of a big deal. Has he published any at all since Jesus' Son? I certainly can't remember any. This one's called "1966," and it's pretty good, and I'm sure everyone else has already posted about it. But Johnson has a new novel coming out in September, and maybe it's really an excerpt.

The thing is, there is a quality that a lot of excerpts have--a kind of artful lopsidedness, a feeling of unseen events unfolding--that can be very appealing. In fact, this quality is something I think maybe I should strive for in short stories--this sense that there are other things happening, somewhere, but that only their shadows fall across the page. Such pieces look like something glanced out the window of a speeding car, like the woman I saw today on State Street having a loud argument with two companions, exerting herself, sweating and red, over an umbrella-style stroller containing an uncomfortable-looking baby.

Anyway, if the Johnson piece is a short story, it's better than if it's a novel excerpt, because he achieved that feeling without the absent novel. It's still enjoyable as an excerpt, though. I like this bit very much:

From his waistband he pulled a blue-steel .45 automatic and aimed it at the man, and the man dropped like a puppet with its strings cut and disappeared. Right at that time Houston heard an explosion. He tried to understand where this noise had come from, to find some explanation for it other than that Kinney had just shot this man in the chest.


The crazy bum said, "That's pretty nifty, man. I think you won that conversation."

I love how the sights arrive before the sounds, the way the two are separate things, like an excerpt and its parent novel.


Jeff said...

It is from the new novel.

Jeff said...

Oh, and he's published quite a bit since Jesus' Son. A really good novel, Already Dead, and a collection of nonfiction. I think there may have been a poetry collection or two in there and some plays.

Sorry, fanboy Jeff here.

jrlennon said...

I meant has he published any short stories since then--I've read all the stuff you mention. There was another novel, too, better than Already Dead, I thought, called The Name Of The World. A slim vol.

I like Johnson's poetry, too...his new and selected is terrific.

Jeff said...

That's a good question and one this fanboy doesn't know an answer to, so I guess I'm not that much of a fanboy. Yeah, The Name of the World was good. Have you read his plays? I have one of them on my shelf but haven't read (again, points deducted from fanboy cred.).

jrlennon said...

I am afraid of the plays...I always die a little inside when my favorite fiction writers branch out into's usually so awful. But hell, if anyone would have the chops, it's Johnson...

...he's teaching at Cornell next year, so I'll probably get to pick his brain in a podcast at some point. Ought to be interesting.