Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Jesus’ Son

I’m running out of things to read in the house, or at least I have the perception of running out of things to read.  I probably have at least a hundred or two books that I haven’t read, so maybe I should say “things I want to read” or “things I should read”.  I feel like I need to be reading more every day, but I also feel like I should only be reading things that feed directly into what I want to write next: either things that are stylistically similar, or the non-fiction that will fill my brain and eventually dump out onto the pages in my fiction.

So the other night I grabbed a copy of Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son.  It’s a short little book, maybe 150 pages in the pocket edition, and each page is pretty terse.  Johnson is, at least here, a very minimalist writer, the kind of prose that can completely kick your ass in the fewest words possible.  He’s the kind of writer that can spin these infinitely interesting characters, with the kind of quirk that really sticks in your head, but he doesn’t do it by spending pages and pages laying down details.  Sometimes, it’s just a sentence or even a few words of a sentence, but I feel like he burns in these people more than when I spend chapters trying to explain the same type of thing.

This book is a collection of realist short stories, in what I would pejoratively call “MFA fiction” if a wannabe was trying to do the same thing.  I see far too much of this when I’m reading submissions to the zine, and I guess with ten times as many people in MFA programs these days, there’s a lot of it circulating.  Normally, this stuff bores me to tears, but Johnson is one of the few that can make this work.  I haven’t really thought about what the difference between good fiction and “MFA fiction” is, and just by mentioning this, everyone with an MFA is going to be up in my shit about it.  Further, the common theme of the stories is an addict that’s hanging out with other junkies and fuckups, and their various escapades.  It’s a far too common trope in that space of writing, but he does manage to pull it off without being cliche.

The thing about Johnson doing this Raymond Carver sort of writing is that he makes it look so effortless, that it makes me think it would be easy to do.  And of course it isn’t.  And it’s dangerous for me to read this kind of thing and get some wise idea that I should get back to writing this kind of modernist, realist fiction, and start thinking about beating the dead horse that is this unfinished book about Bloomington and forget about the kind of absurdist thing I’m trying to chase.  Fortunately, I’m writing every day in this automatic writing thing, just doodles, and when I tried to get into this kind of writing again, I failed horribly, and that made it easy to move on.

Johnson does make me think of flashes of things that probably could someday become stories, and that’s valuable because I’m at the point where I feel like I’ve been wrung dry of material.  Case in point is this blog: any time I think of something interesting to say about the past, I look here and realize I wrote the story back in 2006.  I don’t feel like a lot is happening here day-to-day, at least the things that I could spin into stories or posts.  And I feel like I told the story of Jim getting his kid caught in a vending machine at least five times in the archives here.

I am still struggling to get the next book moving.  I keep thinking I need to write some big, plotted, narrative book that could go toe-to-toe with any genre writing out there, or at least get me out of the situation where I can’t explain my book in a single sentence.  My usual thought is that I should be writing another Rumored, since it’s the book that I’m happiest with, and it’s my book that’s sold the most copies.  But there’s also this huge disconnect for a lot of people who can’t deal with nonlinear fiction, and I feel like one harmful thing the Kindle has done is made the audience for books much more trained to only like heavily plotted genre fiction, or at least that’s who’s buying most of the books these days.  I don’t want to write vampire romances, but I wouldn’t mind turning out a book like Leyner’s Tetherballs of Bougainville, either.