Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson is a jumbled, frustrating post-apocalyptic novel. Don’t expect a paint-by-numbers approach to revealing how things went wrong, nor what happened between that fateful day and the present. There is no omniscient character to provide the necessary background. There is no guide. Instead Johnson’s characters inhabit the world as it is, without the explanation that might bring clarity to the reader.
I admire what Denis Johnson is trying to do in Fiskadoro. He immerses the reader in what it might really be like to be a survivor. History is lost or, worse, is a warped collection of things heard or imagined. The connection to the past is limited, receding away until it vanishes like a sunset never to return. What remains isn’t well understood or is taken for granted as part of daily life.
Admiration and enjoyment don’t always go hand in hand.
Johnson creates a realistic world in which the survivors, and reader, are often fumbling for answers. The survivors crave those answers. They want to know what happened, how it happened and what comes next. And so did I! There are a few sign-posts in Fiskadoro that point to a quarantine and some sort of civilization in Cuba. There is one particular scene late in the book that paints an interesting portrait of the hours or days after the bombs fell. But it’s not enough to quench my thirst for answers. And while I know that’s what Johnson wants me to feel, it leaves me frustrated.
Yes, I enjoy post-apocalyptic novels and Johnson provides one reason I might be drawn to this theme.
Can we help it if sometimes we like to tell stories that want, as their holiest purpose, to excite us with pictures of danger and chaos?
I’ll admit that I see part of myself in that statement. But it’s overwhelmed with the idea of starting again; of battling back from the brink; of stripping down all the old conventions and building anew; of how you might respond should civilization disintegrate. What would you do if …? I am intrigued by this idea.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Postman by David Brin and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell all answer this central question and satisfy in different ways. Fiskadoro doesn’t.
Oddly, the best passages in the book revolve around the past life of a now elderly, nearly mute, woman. The reader is taken back to her harrowing escape from Saigon. This is where the book comes alive and Johnson is certainly drawing some parallels between the two timelines with themes such as the breakdown of society, of leaving the past behind completely and of survival.
I don’t doubt Johnson’s writing ability. He’s talented, with interesting insight …
The sabotage of knowledge by a wealth of facts – they weren’t professors, but guerrillas.
The seagulls walked back and forth at the border of the water, all bellies and beaks, throwing out their chests with an air of flat assumption like small professors.
In the end Fiskadoro proves that the post-apocalyptic genre is tough to get right, even for gifted writers. With all the great post-apocalyptic novels out there, I simply can’t recommend Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson.