The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
by Denis Johnson
Published 2018 by Random House
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0812988635
By Noah Sanders
I’ll be frank: I don’t really know how to write about Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection of short stories. We are talking about one of the great American writers of all time; a dark, scathing, death-obsessed author who plumbed his own demons—religious or otherwise—through his work; a National Book Award-winning author who’s helped to shape the landscape of American letters since the 1980s. I’ve read a lot of Johnson—some I’ve loved, others I haven’t—but now with his death still fresh in all of our little literary minds, how does one look at his final pieces of work with a critical eye? If this is the last new writing we ever see published from Denis Johnson it seems nearly impossible not to imply that his last words—possibly written as he slowly died from liver cancer—aren’t rife with greater meaning, greater insight than what he ever truly intended. In the end though, it doesn’t matter really. At its heart, The Largesse of The Sea Maiden is very much about Johnson’s favorite subject: death, how its inevitability is always the sword hanging above us and what we do as humans to move forward regardless.
In the five short stories in the slim volume, death seems close, ever-present, weighing down on the shoulders of each of his protagonists as they slog from one point in their lives to the next. There’s a sense of remembrance in these pages, of lives lived and not, coupled with a need to know what our legacies will be, what we’ll leave behind when we pass. In “The Starlight on Idaho” an Antabuse-addled rehab patient writes letters he’ll never send to everyone in his life, sometimes apologizing, sometimes ranting incoherently. His letters—written to the “fifteen or sixteen hooks in his belly with lines leading off into the hands of people I haven’t seen since a long time back”—amount to a record of his existence, of what’s come before and what it means moving forward.
Death comes in many forms in these stories—sudden, lengthy, obsessed over or slowly eased into (oftentimes in the same story)—but Johnson focuses on how omnipresent the inevitable succumbing to the great beyond is and how his characters, and his readers must find ways not to buckle under its weight. “The Largesse of The Sea Maiden” exists in the few short days of the grayer ends of a famed ad-man’s life. In the days before he’s set to receive a prestigious award, the ad man grapples with the death of mysterious friend and its implications, its quiet reminder of what happens when someone stumbles to the end of their rope. The ad man sees death everywhere—of his wife, Johnson writes “At any moment—the very next second—she could be dead”—and there’s the implication that the only way to continue moving forward towards all of our inevitable conclusions is ignorance, even self-deprivation of our own knowledge. In a reflective moment, the ad man remembers a story told to him by a journalist friend about a death row inmate whose wife lied to him about her life outside. “Thanks to all her fabrications,” Johnson writes, “William Donald Mason had died a proud and happy husband.”
This is a collection of stories within stories within stories, each narrator looking back, always looking back, through their own histories, trying to find something to make their futures worthwhile. It’s difficult not to think that these short stories are Johnson staring down his final days in literary form. That each sentence about his character’s encroaching end of life is Johnson speaking to his own situation. “Triumph over the Grave” features, in response to a laundry list of those people whom the narrator has lost, this line: “It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.” Though Johnson may be forecasting his own death, he also seems to be implying that through his words, he’ll always be around. That death is coming regardless, and all we can do is live the life we have and hope it amounts to anything in the end.