The things she carried
September 25, 2007
The things she carried
Karen Solie is the author of the poetry collections Short Haul Engine and Modern and Normal.
September 22, 2007
TREE OF SMOKE
By Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
624 pages, $31
Print Edition – Section Front
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The author of three collections of poems, six novels and a book each of reportage and plays, Denis Johnson is still probably best known for Jesus’ Son, a terrific collection of stories made into a less terrific, but still pretty good, movie. Tree of Smoke isn’t, perhaps, as overtly winsome. At 600-plus pages, it’s not only an extremely long novel, it’s an extremely long Vietnam novel, which might generate doubt that this particular vein is close to being tapped out. But do not be deterred. Admirers of Johnson’s work will find their enthusiasm reaffirmed and Tree of Smoke will win him new ones.
Johnson has always been interested in disappointment. His characters, through the sad alchemy of bad choices and worse luck, tend to find themselves in its heartland. Inside all the anger, grief and loneliness, persistent as a national anthem, is a profound confusion at how things have ended up. His books burn with it, his best characters like the man in his poem The Incognito Lounge, who’s “out on the generous lawn/ again, looking like he’s made/ out of phosphorous.”
Often in his work, confusion slides into absurdity, and when Johnson’s on his game, this is translated with acute insight and wicked humour into insanely perfect similes and dialogue that’s both natural and inventive. He can also be a tremendously compassionate writer, adept at communicating not only what his characters think, but how and why they do, rejecting cynicism’s easy out. As this work demonstrates, evoking real disillusionment, rather than simply describing it, is only possible if ideas of hope and redemption are also sincerely thought. If they count for more than plot devices. Something important needs to be at stake.
Tree of Smoke follows William (Skip) Sands, a neophyte spy involved in psychological operations against the Viet Cong. The particulars of this campaign are unknown to him – or, one begins to suspect, to anyone. At the centre is Skip’s uncle, a hard-boiled all-American former war hero known as the Colonel. Unsure of his relationship with the man and the myth, woolly on even the nature of his postings, Skip’s nominal task is to collate and cross-reference the Colonel’s enormous repository of notes. A strange cloud of information, anecdotes, quotations and philosophy, it forms the dubious backbone to an operation code-named Tree of Smoke.
B. S. (Jimmy) Storm is the Colonel’s devoted right-hand man, a “tough little lunatic” totally into the potential of psychological terror. But when the Colonel’s banal demise exposes a dumb nest of aimless deception, Skip embarks on his mundane downfall, and Jimmy flares out into the jungle trailing a comet tail of manic delusion.
Another branch of the novel is the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, who wander aimlessly into a war where at least, James figures, “people would tell him what to do.” Faced with a total absence of moral responsibility in the name of moral responsibility, the brothers are delivered home to the Arizona desert without purpose or direction. Also in play is Kathy Jones, a Canadian missionary aid worker with whom Skip has an affair and whom he loves poorly and obliquely. And there’s Trung Than, the Vietnamese double agent, and his duplicitous cousin Hao. The novel is thick with doubles: the Williams Houston and Sands, and James Sands and Jimmy Storm are only the obvious ones. Betrayals, real, imagined and both, abound, everyone is working under false or secret offices. Even Kathy has misgivings about her God.
The novel opens on the news of JFK’s assassination. Each section contains one year, 1963 through 1970, with a coda set in 1983. Saigon falls silently in the gap. And while the obvious parallels between U.S. involvement in southeast Asia and in the Middle East are important, they never jam the plot, which roars along on the fuel of Johnson’s language. A significant passage on the Tet Offensive nearly causes hearing loss.
Conversations have a surreal, claustrophobic quality that can only be achieved through precision. Clarity is what makes the craziness real. As with the Colonel, who “removed his sunglasses and succeeded in staring the whole platoon in the eye at once.” Or the one-legged deserter who tells him, “My invisible foot hurts.” Who left China Beach and its “smiley gung-ho physical therapy.” Who says, “I like to drink and cry and take pills.”
Skip Sands describes himself as “a young American who thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American.”
Alongside the references to Graham Greene’s novel and Lederer and Burdick’s incendiary 1958 book, Tree of Smoke references and suggests Conrad and Melville, Orwell and Antonin Artaud, Kubrick and Coppola. Its questions make the war’s lessons in disillusionment and bad faith worth returning to. How is one to act, for example, when confronted with deliberate misinformation? Or with a nasty mix of luck and circumstance? In the novel, choices based on delusion lead to chaos and destruction, but casualties also result when choices are deferred until no more remain.
Ultimately, it’s Kathy who’s left to carry the burden of grief, lame from what she’s learned and the choices she’s made, but persisting. She’s rejected the doctrine of predestination, that some are born saved, some damned. The possibility for redemption arrived at is simple, resonant and unqualified, as necessary as breathing. Though, as Johnson indicates, to maintain hope and to act out of it can be the most difficult vocation of all.
If Tree of Smoke is your first Denis Johnson book, you can find out what happens to Bill Houston by reading Angels, his first novel. Then read more, since Johnson is one of the best American writers now working. And don’t forget his poetry.