Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Wolves and Wild Girls: Angela Carter and Denis Johnson

Spot the wolf...

I found myself surrounded by wolves this week, literarily rather than literally. A writer friend, Jarred McGinnis, recommended a book to me by Denis Johnson. Having encountered Johnson’s work via the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, I expected another story centring around alcoholics, drug addicts, and the grit of low kinds of lives. But the novella Train Dreams, set in 20th century America, briskly charts the life of Grainier, a man whose simple existence is shaped by the loss of his wife and child in a forest fire. What a beautiful book it is. Johnson exemplifies many qualities of great writing in Train Dreams, but two of those qualities I have been particularly focused on since learning about them on a writing course (via Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium): quickness and lightness. 

Train Dreams is a slim volume, yet captures all of Grainier’s long adult life, managing to include seemingly extraneous but always important detail: the moment Grainier visits a country fair and takes his only flight in a light aircraft being one. We move swiftly yet delicately through his narrative, with a clear sense of the man and his environment that is set up so sparsely it seems miraculous. That is the quickness. 

The lightness lies in the way Johnson makes such a fleeting narrative have such emotional impact. He does not give us access to the inside of Grainier’s head in any obvious way. Rather we see his repeated return to the burned out site of his home, the choice he makes to set up camp alone, his habit – never painted as macabre or eccentric – of howling along with the wolves in the woods sometimes. 

It is this wolf connection which brings the story to its climax, again in a scene so plainly written that the emotion appears to come entirely from the reader. It put me in mind immediately of another story - Angela Carter’s ‘Peter and the Wolf – which I’ve been reading in preparation for discussion with the Word Factory Short Story Club in November.

I’d gone looking for a great Angela Carter story for the group to read, and had so many in mind, but re-reading this one reminded me just how visceral and sexual Carter’s writing can be, even concerning children and animals (and not in a gross way). It is also an exercise in quickness (in this case in a way much more reminiscent of a fairy tale): in three lines we pass through seven years; in a sentence here and there we understand a boy’s fascination with a wild girl and her female anatomy.

In both Carter’s and Johnson’s tales, a fleeting connection is made with wild child, a feral girl who lives with the wolves and is therefore unreachable. In both tales the male protagonist both enjoys the connection but appears to accept the distance between him and the wolf girl. I find this lack of desire to entrap or tame deeply appealing. Even though I don’t think it means quite the same thing in these two stories, I am tempted to conclude that both stories are about accepting loss, not of the obvious things such as a home or a wife, but of a part of us that civilisation does not permit.

I'd always recommend Angela Carter, but if you're not familiar with Denis Johnson and want to discover another great writer, try Train Dreams or his short story collection, Jesus' Son.

And if you’d like to join a discussion of Angela Carter’s 'Peter and the Wolf'at the Word Factory in November, check the details here.

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