What makes a book literary? What catapults it out of “genre” and onto those lofty shelves? Well, the writing. The writing has to be excellent on a sentence level, on a paragraph level, and on the-whole-damn-book level. Denis Johnson’s 1985 post-apocalyptic novel Fiskadoro has that capital “L” it factor (LIT factor! harheeharharokI’llstop):
“Whenever she imagined, against her will, that triumph of death over the world, the hordes of skeletons dragging the sacks of their skins behind them through the flaming streets, the buildings made out of skulls, the empty uniforms coming inexorably through the fields, the bodies of children stuck full of blast-blown knives and forks—the bottom of everything, the end of the world, a grey blank with nobody to remember it, the vision described, passed on, preserved by no one—it was in that city that she saw it, in the city of her father’s death.”
Though the book is named for a young man whose perspective occupies a little over half the narrative, it was Grandma Wright—the oldest woman on Earth now that nukes have made a radioactive mess of things—and the women whose eyes give us the devastating yet beautiful passage above. Without her Fiskadoro‘s apocalypse would have remained a mystery, hinted at in details of the character’s daily life, but never fully explained. But the oldest woman in the world lived through the apocalypse, and when she remembers it, she takes us along in the book’s most beautiful language.
Fiskadoro I could have gone without. Though Johnson’s vision of nuclear apocalypse is very original, it was Grandma Wright who made the book worth reading.
If you want to hear more about the details, Eva Hoffman has written a stunning review of it over on nytimes.com.