In 2002, the New York University Medical Center and the NYU Psychoanalytic Institute put together a symposium entitled “The Apocalyptic Imagination: Daydreaming in an Era of Nightmares,” and convened a panel of Robert Stone, Denis Johnson and me—and I invite you to figure out what’s wrong with that list—each of us paired with three ominous-looking figures whom we were assured were distinguished psychoanalysts selected especially to engage our work. The idea was that the writers would each read their fiction and then the psychoanalysts would psychoanalyze it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the writers and analysts kept to their respective groups in the green room beforehand. Robert Stone and I had fun bantering about the bizarreness of the event, but Denis Johnson was, to understate things, less relaxed. He had agreed to this event apparently without having fully realized that it would take place inside a kind of institution he felt like he had seen before. When his time at the podium came, he read “Emergency,” and before he began, he looked out at the assembled multitude and said, “You guys know that when this is all over, you have to let us go, right?” It got a big laugh, but he didn’t seem to be kidding.
My consciousness of Denis goes back to 1982 and The Incognito Lounge, and the following year we not only shared an editor at Knopf but had our first novels coming out within a month of one another. That shared editor, Robert Gottlieb, called one day to tell me I had to change the title of my novel. When I asked why, he said that he had another young writer whose first novel was also called Angels, and that it wasn’t going to work to have two novels called Angels coming out within a month of one another in the same catalog. And my response was, “Well, why do I have to change my title?” And Bob answered, “Because Denis’s title is an excellent title. Yours is a mediocre title.”
Bob, as he so often was, was right. Denis Johnson spent his life writing about our better angels, in as oblique, and as earned, a way as anyone could imagine. He was our master of rendering moments of psychological nakedness so palpable that the comic and the piteous, the ruthless and the helplessly vulnerable, the appalling and the transcendent, were made to lie down together. He never ceased to remind us that somewhere inside the self that we presented to the world—the self that we knew so often disheartened others—there was a person we wished the world could know; a person we wished that we ourselves could more consistently glimpse.
In an essay inspired by Schiller’s “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry,” Orhan Pamuk once divided writers into those two groups, characterizing naive writers as natural and spontaneous, as if without an awareness of how they were writing (Dante, Cervantes, Sterne, and Goethe, apparently), and sentimental writers as the hardworking, slower students, like Flaubert, Tolstoy, Gogol, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, and most of the rest of us. You can guess in which category Pamuk would probably slot Johnson. But that characterization as “natural and spontaneous” steers us away from analysis—since these are heights scaled apparently by inspiration and genius, and not through industry—and that does readers who would like to know why something is wonderful a serious disservice.