“Now, in the Not Quite Dark” by Dana Johnson

Hey hey, Story366! Coming at you yet again, for a fourth day in a row, with another story, from another collection, by another author. All of this love has been in the name of Short Story Month, but really, some of these books I’ve covered so far this week—Eric Buchner’s and Mariana Enriquez’s, namely—have been on my desk here for a couple of months and I’ve been itching to open them up and read their offerings. The third book on that pile has been Dana Johnson‘s In the Not Quite Darkfrom Counterpoint Press, which I’m covering today, so the three collections burning a hole in my pocket are taken care of—from here on out I’ll just move on to the fifty or so other books on my desk that I also want to read and write about.

Interlude: Story366, as a daily blog in 2016, served in a minor way as a living document of history. Most of that was my own history, me telling you what I’d been up to in my life, with some specific references and passages to things like holidays, world events, and of course, the Cubs’ first World Series victory in 108 years (I ran into Roy Kesey at AWP in DC, after writing about his book the day the Cubs won the Series, and he thanked me for pointing out how much more his story was about the Cubs than he ever realized). I wrote about books. I noted when a celebrity died. And much too often, I commented on the weather.

And sometimes, when it was important, I made notes about politics. I never wanted Story366 to be a political rant, for me to tie any particular author’s book to any particular event, to any day in history, as maybe that’s not fair to their book. Still, if I want this to be a living archive, and I’m going to talk about shit like the weather, what I’m making for dinner, and the Cubs, it seems like I should also take note of when, oh, the House of Representatives fucks all middle and lower-class Americans by passing through a terrible health care bill, one that will just about kill every citizen with existing conditions. I mean, don’t you think I should bring something like that up? Make note in the Comments section if you think I’m off (or on) about this.

In any case, moving on to In the Not Quite Dark. What a book! You know, it’s the end of the semester here at MSU, and yesterday, I passed out a list of terms to my intro students, the vocab list that will be covered on the final. I asked my classes to mark off the terms that they didn’t know so we could talk about them, and one term that came up was “psychic distance.” This wasn’t a term I ever heard in my creative writing classes, not in undergrad or grad school, though over the years, as a writer and editor, I’d read about psychic distance and could certainly tell anyone who asked what it is, what purpose it serves in fiction, and why a fiction writer should know it. Coming to MSU in 2012, I found out it was a much more text-oriented curriculum, fiction vocab lists suddenly a thing when I’d never really encountered them before—in my own workshops, vocab lists were just running mental inventories, things I heard in class, things I picked up and defined via context, nothing I was ever officially tested on; I’d never had a final in a creative writing class, but here, we have finals in every class, and because we’re not going to pass out blue books and have students write stories as time ticks away, a vocab test is the logical alternative. As a result, terms like “psychic distance” and “universal paradox” and “vivid and continuous dream” are now part of my consciousness. That’s good, though: I’m a professor and I should know this shit.

In any case, since talking to my classes yesterday, I have psychic distance on my mind, and maybe that’s why I was thinking about psychic distance while reading Johnson’s stories, as man, she really gets into her characters’ heads. The stories I read from In the Not Quite Dark are what I would dub “ephemeral,” stories that investigate each of their protagonists’ most inner thoughts (i.e., close psychic distance). Put simply, it’s not so much what the characters do—though I loved what happens in these stories, too—but how Johnson depicts what’s going on in their heads. I really enjoyed stories like “The Liberace Museum,” but today I’ll focus on “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” the (mostly) title story, as it’s my favorite of the bunch.

“Now, in the Not Quite Dark” is about Dean, a guy living in LA in an old (circa 1905) building called the Pacific Electric Building, where he hangs out with his mom on the roof, sipping drinks and talking about the things that bother him. That super-close third-person narrator describes Dean as a haunted guy, haunted mainly by people who have left him. When he was a kid, Dean used to get all anxious about people leaving him, whether it was his mom just in the bathroom, or a stranger he met a story he knew he’d never see again. Eventually, those types of departures Dean could handle, but his anxiety matures, Dean spending a lot of time thinking about the people in the world, in his world, who have come and gone. The mailbox captions down in the Pacific Electric lobby, for example, are outdated, but Dean is obsessed by the names, people who used to live in the building, people who moved, people who have long since died. He thinks about them, their last names, and longs for them. Can I name another story or novel in which this type of anxiety is the protagonist’s primary characteristic? No, and that’s why Johnson’s story is sticking with me, her original and creative characterization. Dean seems so real because of this, like someone I know, someone I’ve known all my life.

Dean makes other observations, too, about life and death. His building also happens to double as a generic New York apartment building for the crime drama CSI: New York, the actor Gary Sinise sometimes hanging out on another floor, shooting a scene with a playing-dead actor under a tarp; ironically, during one shoot, a Pacific Electric resident has actually died, so on one floor, actors are pretending to investigate, and just below, real police and a real coroner were doing so on a real corpse. For someone with Dean’s demons, this type of coincidence seems like a mental Christmas, so much to think on, so much to ponder, so much to fear.

Vignettes like this CSI thing inhabit the majority of “Now, in the Not Quite Dark,” as Dean and his mom hang out. Johnson presents other characters, other missing persons, such as Sippy, a weird, creepy kid Dean remembers from his childhood, and most notably, the woman who was found dead in the water tower two buildings over. Dean has obsessed over this, as at first, this woman was a citywide missing persons case, on the news non-stop, then discovered so close to Dean, that water tower in full view of his lawn chair, in his sightline the entire time: Dean had been staring at the dead woman, in a way, without knowing it.

At the core, though, this story is about Dean, his relationship with his mother, his relationship with himself. Dean is a guy who has a lot haunting him, but really, he’s okay with that. Worrying about the departed is what Dean does, like a present-day Gabriel Conroy, only it’s not only Michael Furey he’s fretting, everyone and anyone instead.

Dana Johnson has written a collection of top-notch fiction in In the Not Quite Dark, dense, rewarding stories that I enjoyed reading, enjoyed getting to know. Some of the deepest, best characterization I’ve seen, which is saying a lot, these figures staying with me as if I were Dean himself, unable to forget a single one.