January 1: “Nirvana” by Adam Johnson

For my first post—of an alleged 366—I wanted to do a special story. I thought about writing about one of my all-time favorites, O’Conner’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or Barthelme’s “The School,” or something more recent, Russell’s “Reeling for the Empire” comes to mind, but that’s cheating. At least it is on January 1, when I’ve promised to read 366 new stories. This might change in the dog days of August (… or late January), when I’m burned out, when I don’t have time, or when I just feel like changing things up. I also thought about choosing a classic story I’ve never read, something I’m embarrassed about not having read. Since I teach an Intro to Fiction class every semester and assign a lot of these stories, I can’t think of one that fits this description; I’ve seen every Oscar Best Picture winner except one, Dances with Wolves, oddly, but as far as I can tell, there is no short story equivalent on my list—I think I’ve read every story I should have read by now.

As luck would have it, I have a lot of new story collections that I haven’t cracked yet, and thumbing through the ever-growing pile, I picked Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles to start things off. I love Johnson’s work, having read Emporium when it came out, stories like “The Death-Dealing Cassini Satellite” and “The Canadanaut” sticking with me all these years, the latter I still assign to students, despite its enormity. I also love The Orphan Master’s Son, and will teach that for the second time this coming semester. So, Adam Johnson, the honor is yours.

I hope to read this entire collection within the next week, and while I don’t know how my story-selecting rules will play out all year, I know I won’t blog about the same author, the same book, day after day. Who wants that? For today, I arbitrarily chose the first story in the collection, “Nirvana.”

Going in, I thought the title was going to refer to the state of enlightenment, the general definition, but as it turns out, the protagonist tells us that his wife listens to Nirvana all night, every night, via headphones. So, it’s the band (though, of course, like every good one-word title, there’s layers and layers of double meanings). I have an affinity for Nirvana, graduating from high school in 1991, the year Nevermind came out, a good year to be 17 in terms of music and culture and bad haircuts, etc. I lived Nirvana for my college years, mourned Kurt Cobain’s death, and still have their albums in semi-regular rotation. Adam Johnson’s just a couple years older than me, so either he had the same connection, or he did his homework (which he’s known for—he actually went to North Korea for Orphan Master’s Son—so that’s possible, too).

Anyway, this story has what I like in stories, what I love in stories, and consequently, what I do in stories, and that’s putting forth a predicament/situation/dilemma in the first paragraph and just going from there, seeing how the protagonist deals with it. In this story’s first paragraph: The protagonist’s wife listens to Nirvana all night mostly because she’s paralyzed from the neck down due to this rare nerve disease, leaving her in a mechanical bed in their bedroom, wondering if she’ll recover or die; at the same time, the protagonist hears the president talking to him because the president has just been assassinated the protagonist has built this hologram projector of said dead president, one that talks only in old phrases the president used to talk in, because that’s what the protagonist found on the Internet, what he programmed into his algorithm.

That’s paragraph one. We don’t really know about the hologram machine right away—Johnson reveals the details a couple of pages later—but it’s still there, the president talking to him as he nurses his wife. What I’m getting at is, there is no one way to write a story, but I particularly like stories like this: Lots of weird, creative elements, crystal clear conflicts, inner turmoil, love in flux, and all of it right away. I couldn’t have picked a better Mike story for the first day.

As noted, I’m not sure how the rules of this blog will evolve, but I’m certain I’m not going to give away the endings of stories, write as though readers have already read them. The goal is for me to read a lot of stories, write about them, and hopefully, get other people to read the ones I like a lot, and maybe some of the ones I don’t.

Without giving anything else away, I will say that I do  like this story, that I found the rest of it overly satisfying, especially the ending, which I didn’t see coming (though I feel dumb that I didn’t). There’s a couple of great subplots and supporting characters, and I laughed out loud a few times. In short, Adam Johnson continues his streak: I’ve still not read a single thing of his that I haven’t loved.

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10 thoughts on “January 1: “Nirvana” by Adam Johnson

  1. I had the honor of going to school with this amazing talented guy. His work floors me and I think you hit the nail on the head. My favorite is from his other collection about the sniper kid. You should leap to Robert Olen Butler next, his mentor at McNeese. One of Butler’s best is “Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of Parrot.”

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    1. Hey, Matt! Oh, I’m very aware of Butler. He’s a nice guy, judged an MAR contest for me one year and was very pleasant and professional. I teach “Jealous Husband” in my classes every semester, and I’ve read quite a few of his books. When I come across something of his I haven’t read before, I’ll certainly do it! Thanks so much!

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  2. Andrew Stancek

    What a wonderful idea for a blog, Mike, and one I am sure to follow. The only problem I have is that it will make me want to pick up new short story collections, and I have promised not to bring any more books into the house (hah! as if that was going to happen). Hahaha. I know some of Adam Johnson’s work and that story sounds terrific. I also love your general comment about what you like in stories, and you do. That in itself will make the blog great to follow. I am so looking forward to these discussions. Thank you.

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    1. Here we go, Andrew! Apparently it’s set so that comments only show up when I approve them or reply, which I’ll figure out how to change. Thanks for pointing this out, and thanks for reading!

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  3. Glad I found this blog. I’d resolved to read one story a week this year, in addition to the usual novel, nonfiction, and poetry that’s on my nightstand. Your attempt at a story a day is admirable. And I love Adam Johnson’s work, so this is a perfect start for me. I heard him read an early version of this story at a writers conference in Charleston.

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  4. I loved every one of the stories in Fortune Smiles, but “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” just totally blew me away!
    Love your blog – very ambitious to not only read, but review, a story a day!!

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  5. Pingback: November 30: “School Bus” by Peter Grandbois – Story366

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