Stunning passage from Denis Johnson's 'Largesse of the Sea Maiden'

February 14, 2018

Halfway through Denis Johnson's Largesse of the Sea Maiden, I was liking but not really loving it. There were scattered wondrous moments, but a lot of chaff. And then I began the story "Triumph Over The Grave."

 

I'm not even finished with it, but it's already spellbinding. And this passage. This is why I love him.

 

(Of course much of the impact is built upon the confusion already underway in the scene, and the elements pulled back in, so this is probably best enjoyed relishing again after consuming the story. But either way, enjoy.)

 

It might help to know that he's gone out to a remote ranch in Texas to check on an old friend seems to be losing his mind and has been chatting with his dead brother and sister-in-law Ovid and Bess. He says they're in the little room behind the door the narrator is about to open: 

 

The room lay in the center of the house and may originally have been some sort of pantry. It lacked windows and amounts to a twelve-by-twelve-foot box constructed of yellowing whitewashed planks. Over the years the seams between the planks had opened to finger-wide gaps which had been stopped with spray-foam insulation that congealed in grotesque, snotty rivulets reminiscent of limestone cave formations, hard to look at but impermeable to scorpions. Mrs. Exroy, who’d given me the tour, had told me about the scorpions and said the foam insulation was there to keep them out—that is, to imprison them in the darkness behind the walls— while an image of them poured through the cracks into the impressionable mind, teeming there with their stinger-tipped venom sacs waving at the ends of their segmented tails and their pincers clacking like castanets on the ends of their loathsome pedipalps. I now felt convinced that something real, something horrid was happening to this man in this house, and the bizarre shrinking sensation I’d experienced earlier was now explained (despite remaining utterly mysterious) as the result of my having passed through a succession of ever smaller perimeters whose entries I’d breached as if in my sleep, blind to their significance — each of the four gates; then the creek; then the constellation* of the vultures at this moment still wheeling above the roof; and finally the bounds of the house itself — toward the pair of entities, Bess and Ovid, waiting behind the door. 

 

I depressed the latch and pushed the door wide, and the twilight from the hallway fell across the only things in  the space, a single-size metal bed frame and its bare, grayed filthy mattress—only these two objects, twisted invisibly by the several concentric gales of power whirling around them for a radius of twenty miles. A bit of light touched the walls, enough to reveal that they were undisturbed, and still disturbing. The disfiguring goop had the sandy parlor and plasticine shine of a scorpion’s exoskeleton, so that to me it appeared multiple tons of scorpions were being mashed against the wall’s other side and extruding from the cracks. i shut the door fast, like a frightened child. 

 

To be clear, I hadn't seen any scorpions or any people or any ghosts.

 

* Halfway through typing it, I felt a stirring connection to something I'd been just then writing about one of my gay soldiers, and riffed on it, creating a paragraph unlike anything else in the scene. I then returned to typing, and when I got to the word constellation, was surprised to find it there. I had described a "skyfull" of tedious math calculations my soldier was thrilled to see fading from his future, and realized that wasn't quite the right image. I pondered a bit and changed them to be constellations of complex calculations, unaware I was stealing the word I'd just read, having forgotten it was in there. 

 

These are the moments that bring the joy of writing to a full boil.

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