David Ulin sees similarities between Norman Mailer and Denis Johnson:
Regardless of what you think about Mailer, his death is one more signifier of a literary culture in transition, in which the old guard is disappearing faster than we can figure out who might fill the void. This is why Johnson's prize is so compelling -- because he may be the one American writer of his generation (the generation raised on Vietnam and Woodstock) who consistently writes with that overarching standard of engagement, who's not playing games but going after something fundamental, using literature to get at the essence of who we are.
I have to assume that in Ulin's reference to "playing games" he is taking a swipe at postmodernism, using the same stale cliche those critics who want to valorize the "engagement" of writers like Mailer and Johnson in contrast to the aesthetic affectations of formalists and metafictionists always seem to use. The former don't mince around with "art" but grapple with "the essence of who we are," while the latter are preoccupied with surfaces, with the "merely literary."
It's a tiresome enough exercise, as much as anything else unfair to Mailer and Johnson, who are being judged as philosophers and seers rather than novelists, archaelogists of the soul rather than artists. Surely Mailer's most ponderous and pretentious books are those in which he self-consciously assumed these roles, and it does Johnson no favor to describe his work in terms as trite as those Ulin later uses to capture that "something fundamental" he is putatively "going after":
These are strange books, no doubt about it, built on the notion that reality is a veil behind which we might discover the truer nature of things, if only we could see it for what it is. Occasionally, we are offered glimpses but that just adds to our confusion -- or, worse, puts our most essential selves at risk. "Did you think we were just thinking?" a character asks in "Already Dead." "Thinking forbidden thoughts? Imagining heresies? Pretending to recognize moral systems as instruments of oppression and control?"
What Johnson is saying is that this is not a game but deadly serious, that what's at stake is how we continue in the face of mysteries so large they threaten to overwhelm us -- and ultimately will. The only answer is to continue moving forward, to accept our small graces and benedictions where we can.
The vapidity here is striking: "reality is a veil"; "our most essential selves"; "not a game but deadly serious"; "[t]he only answer is to continue moving forward." What does any of this mean? Why would anyone want to read a body of work that can be reduced to this sort of night-school existentialism? Most importantly, would Denis Johnson be satisfied with such a flavorless characterization of his fiction? I can't imagine that he would. While I would not call Jesus' Son "the most potent work of American fiction in the last 20 years" (among other reasons because it was actually published in 1992), I did enjoy reading this book (as well as Angels and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man), and I can't at all say it was because Johnson had pierced the veil of reality or dug down to our "most essential selves" or because it signalled to me that we should "continue moving forward." In fact, it seemed to me a rather delicate book, working through style, nuance, and indirection rather than a heavy-handed "engagement" or utilitarian view of literature as spiritual guide.
It remains unclear to me why we should hold novelists to an "overarching standard of engagement." Why should I care whether Norman Mailer or Denis Johnson have anything at all to "say"? They're novelists, not soapbox orators, and should be judged by the quality of the literary art they make, not their efforts to discover the really real or stare down the "face of mysteries." I'd rather have writers playing games than aspiring to be sages.