Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Tree of Smoke" Flames Out

The New York Times' review of Tree of Smoke says that it "is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop."

Not. On all accounts.

I think I'm Denis Johnson's ideal reader in some ways--his first novel, Angels, and then his collection of short stories, Jesus's Son, are among my favorite books. So I was eager to read Tree of Smoke, especially after several reviews elevated it to masterpiece status and it won the National Book Award (perhaps in the way that Paul Newman won the Oscar for the somewhat laughable The Color of Money instead of the true classic The Hustler).

Tree of Smoke, at least by its heft, is ambitious, but doesn't deliver. The things Johnson does so well--his keen, poignant portraits of people desperately clinging to the edge of life--don't quite come to life here. The novel is littered with his usual cast of desperados--the sort of desperados I usually read Johnson for, including Bill Houston from Angels--but I never quite feel their heartbeat.

In fact, Johnson exposes a limitation in this novel. His characters always unravel in familiar ways (the same labyrinth of drugs, alcohol, quirky mysticism), so what used to seem odd, unpredictable, and possibly enlightening is now hackneyed, just another Denis Johnson recipe, almost as if he's writing a genre novel.

Since Johnson is hailed as a genius, one expects him to bring more counterpoints and layers into his prose--the polyphony that Kundera says makes the novel such a unique art form--but like listening to heavy metal, you only hear the occasional ballad among mostly head banging tunes. If Denis Johnson is indeed a genius, he needs to add second and third notes to his tune--he needs to offer a vision of life that holds surprises. In short, he needs to get over himself.

Since the book weighs in at over 600 pages and covers the time span of the Viet Nam war, it promises to provide new historical angles, but I felt as if the Viet Nam scenes were cliched, watered-down versions of Apocalypse Now or other Viet Nam classics (e.g., the colonel, who's at the moral and psychological center of the novel, is nothing more than a cross between Kurtz and a rogue version of Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now). He's flatly mythological, without flesh, derivative.

Then there's the colonel's nephew, Skip Sands, who is perhaps the true main character of the book. Except that he's utterly without complexity, without any urgent drive or motive. When he has sex with a woman, it's hard to imagine him getting an erection. He's consigned in the novel to waiting around, organizing the colonel's card catalogue of espionage, and wanting to be a part of the war; as a character he waits for 600 pages to be a part of the novel.

Skip offers this wisdom on the war--and this is about as wise as the book gets: "This isn't a war. It's a disease. A plague." Yes, this is what high school history teachers have been teaching for 30 years.

"These folks mean business," avers the Colonel. "You whack them down in January, they're back all bright and shiny next May, ready for more of our terrible abuse." Again, no new insights here. In fact, sometimes Johnson's characters actually seem to be mouthing the historical research he's done.

Granted, it's difficult to portray this era in a fresh light given the number of books and films that have explored it, but this is Denis Johnson, supposedly one of our most original authors, so I expect more from the strange place he views the world from. At his best, Johnson presents an unhinged word that's full of odd beauty and religious possibility even as its murderous and cruel, but even Johnson's eerie lyricism only snakes through on occasion, and he doesn't earn the tilt he gives this world.

I wonder if Johnson works better in shorter forms. In some ways, the novel's length seemed to indicate an author who was trying to nail down his story, reaching, and then reaching again for something, but only adding pages to the work, not meaning. I also wonder if his editor lacked the cajones to edit him--how does one edit a master?

How does one review a master as well? Every review I read gave Johnson tremendous benefit of the doubt, as if the reviewers were afraid to say a negative word. But then American reviewers tend to act more as marketing agents and plot summarizers than true critics.

Fortunately I came across an honest, astute review of this book in the Atlantic Monthly: "When a novel’s first words are 'Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,' and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts 'prose of amazing power and stylishness' on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there."

The reviewer in the Times said that by the end, he wished the novel were longer. I kept wishing it were shorter. Nearly every page until the end.

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