Sunday, January 17, 2016

Tree of Smoke (2007)

I wonder if there are others like me when it comes to novelist, story writer, and poet Denis Johnson. I really loved his story collection of 1992, Jesus' Son, but never found a novel I could finish until I made a project of this one. I was happy to see critical regard coalescing around it (National Book Award winner, Pulitzer finalist, etc.), but the first thing that surprised me is that it's about Vietnam, which seemed to belong to another era altogether in 2007. Born in 1949, Johnson is of the generation. His father worked for the State Department and the family lived abroad and moved frequently. He's done his homework too. But in many ways there's nothing new or interesting going on in Tree of Smoke—it's the usual familiar business of the hallucinatory dangerous conditions on the ground and the knavery of those calling the shots. That's deepened here with spies and spooks missions that read as plausible enough, and it's caustically humorous in its treatment of anticommunism thinking and cant. The "tree of smoke" term itself could tantalizingly be anything, as Johnson takes pains to spell out: a bible verse (Book of Joel, and elsewhere), a wartime scene, the dread mushroom cloud of course, or the maddening vaporous insubstantialities which are too often the basis of life and death—"mistakes were made," and like that. Johnson's language is in good form: studied, precise, lancing, vivid. But I kept getting an undertowing sense that the setting and scene work against this novel. A good novel is always good, but somehow I wonder if this wouldn't have been more effective published 20 years or more earlier. That's a terrible question to ask and one for history to decide anyway. Tree of Smoke is populated with interesting, mysterious characters we have met before, in the movies The Year of Living Dangerously and Apocalypse Now, and in Michael Herr's collection of journalism, Dispatches. Johnson cleverly covers himself with the explicit discussion of the "tree of smoke" term as metaphor, by name-checking both The Ugly American and The Quiet American, and by otherwise finding ways to step aside from the action and acknowledge its overfamiliarity with a casual shrug. Yeah, we've been here before, he seems to be saying, which might have been a provocative statement to make in 2007 on another very obvious level, one played to quite directly. So there's the motivation, I suppose—Iraq. What's a novelist to do? But are subtlety and nuance the way to make the point? Maybe so, judging by the favorable reception. Maybe so. But it also reminds me a little of Paul Krugman and Barack Obama winning Nobel Prizes. Not quite playing to the right audience in the right way to accomplish your goals, but appreciate the sentiment.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. A Vietnam War novel in the middle-'00s does seem anachronistic. So no provocative Iraq War parallels w/ quagmire, torture, the horrible hubris of occupations and nation building, nothing? Too bad. I like your Obama/Krugman analogy too.