Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a short story collection by American writer Denis Johnson. The book was published a year after Johnson's death. The book is composed of five long short stories. Johnson was terminally ill when he wrote some of the stories in the collection, and this had a profound effect on the themes of the stories. The idea of mortality is a constant topic in the stories, and one's awareness of that fragile mortality shaped the philosophical subtext in the stories. In the titular story, Johnson, through his characters, reflects on the physical aging process as well as how we "age" spiritually and intellectually. The book has a meditative tone in its prose, and it shows a literary style that is more refined since Johnson's seminal work, Jesus' Son, which was published over two decades before The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.
In these stories, Johnson sprints back and forth between the past and the future. Some of the characters are aware of an impending demise, and they express a mixture of fear and curiosity about what lies ahead for them. On the other hand, there are many examples in the stories in which Johnson reflects on his regrets. He remembers the people he once loved and relationships and friendships that came to an end long ago. Through his characters, Johnson expresses all of the important life events that he missed out on due to drug addiction and alcoholism. The book is almost an unofficial memoir because all five stories are semi-autobiographical and feature the dominant presence and voice of the author, as if Johnson is the omnipresent god in the lives of his characters.
The stories also have a cosmic feel to them, even in mundane everyday-life scenes. The characters are ordinary people, but the events that happen in their lives feel as if each action is part of a domino effect that eventually reveals the big picture. What that big picture is is a mystery, even to Johnson, but that mystery is a reflection of death and is something Johnson feels is wonderful rather than scary. There is a sense of awareness of the universe and a sense that the events that happen in the past or present have a divine influence. This is one of the influences of Johnson's health status at the time of writing, and it gives the stories added depth and weight.
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