Tree of Smoke (2007) by Denis Johnson

Tree of SmokeTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For a National Book Award winner and a finalist for the 2008’s Pulitzer Prize, I expected much much more from Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Expect to be let down when attempting to conquer this 702-page-marathon (it took me over six months, frequently setting it aside, uninterested to continue, and for good reason), a marathon of events and characters, roaming the Philippines, Vietnam, Arizona, California, Japan, which rarely intersect and fail, in the end, to mean anything more than a hodgepodge, a mongrel that runs in circles chasing its tail until it falls down dead, at last (Thank goodness).

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One reviewer, Geoff Dyer, of The Guardian (we’ll return to him later), actually wrote in a book review that he skimmed much of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (good advice). Another reviewer, Zachary Levine, writes: “A few scenes in the novel are almost very much like scenes in Apocalypse Now. Sometimes they’re only small things, but I’ve seen that movie so many times that I can’t help but pick out the little things” (Web).

According to the advice from my past mentor and best-selling author, Dr. Matt Bondurant, modern entertainment, especially cinema, often influences modern literature and is best to be avoided (Believe it or not, he recommended me this book; and I should have known when my first copy arrived from Amazon.com missing the entire first chapter: “1963,” and I had to order an additional copy, which finally, to my less-than-good fortune, arrived in full).

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Denis Johnson needed that advice. Stay away from cinema (unless the book is an advanced script for a movie, which is common these days). Most of the book reads like a mix of Apocalypse Now, the movie, and The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad; the Johnson’s Colonel Francis X. Sands unsurprisingly becomes a larger-than-life myth (in the book, not my opinion—I rarely missed the Colonel when he vanished from the pages) by the end of the book and mirrors Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore and Kurtz. In addition, the historical verisimilitude one expects in such a novel of this magnitude is simplified to characters drinking tea, whiskey, cokes, and “Number One” energy drink which, somehow, will not be created until 2001 by the Than Hiep Phat Company in Vietnam (a minor mistake out of 702 pages, unless he meant another “Number One” drink, but doubtful).

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The verisimilitude of the 1960s in Vietnam is eerily similar to a tourist visiting modern day Vietnam (I happen to live in Vietnam and have done so for the past five years).

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The “Vietnam” in Tree of Smoke (in my opinion) is much more similar to the Vietnam now than what it would have been like forty years ago. It doesn’t feel right. It just doesn’t ring true, and it makes one question how much research went in to writing this novel. But what is really disappointing about this novel is that the dialogue and characters are not convincing enough to merit a place among the classics, as suggested by the Pulitzer nomination.

The dialogue, often dominating the scene for several pages, is stagnant and stale and subpar for a novel nominated for a Pulitzer (here I suspect content, the Vietnam War, and friends in the right places played a hefty part).

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In How Fiction Works, James Wood refers to Graham Green (mentioned and directly referenced multiple times in Tree of Smoke—an attempt by Johnson to elevate his own literature, I suspect—and we’ll come back to this reference of Green in a moment) and his take on dialogue:

“Dialogue should be carrying multiple meanings and that it should mean different things to different readers at the same time, is surely right. (It can carry several indeterminate meanings for the reader and still be “explained” by an author, I think, but this takes great tact)” (215).

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Johnson, out of the entire novel, does this only a few times. Most often the dialogue reads as follows:

“No? Maybe you thumbed your nose at McNamara. Is that the one?”
“The Secretary of Defense?”
“Yeah. He must’ve put you in exile as punishment, huh?”
“I like it here very much.”
“You spies are always so perky and chipper.” (410)

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The above example is a truly poor display of research and dialogue (I expect facts and tidbits to be of the obscure and uncommon kind, something not everyone knows about Vietnam during this time). And again:

He thumbed his selector and fired off a full magazine on auto. The mortars began again up the hill.

“Do you believe this shit?”
“What the fuck? WHAT THE FUCK?”
“Sarge said this whole mountain’s under attack!”
“Folks misbehaving,” Black Man said. “They usually don’t attack in daylight.”
“Goddamn it,” James said.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. You’re making me laugh.”
“You’re making me laugh.”
“Why are we laughing?” (318)

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It doesn’t get any better than this. The novel could have been cut down to 300 pages, and dialogue and scenes like the ones above could have been included in those deletions. Much of the dialogue seems to be quoting Johnson rather than the truth of the characters, hence why in the end out of the tremendous cast of characters and scenes only a few are memorable (I expect more meaningful moments from a novel of this length).

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Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages explains: “The journalistic writers who quote their characters need to learn that their characters aren’t there to reinforce the writer’s points but to raise their own voices. Characters are not to be quoted, but to speak for themselves” (80). The dialogue, throughout, just doesn’t read true, but becomes, in many places, forced and common place, mundane, as if Johnson’s visible hand is there forcing them to speak.

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Dialogue isn’t the only failure of this novel. The characters themselves are incoherent and lack meaning behind their thoughts and actions, and fails to provoke the emotional responses one might feel at the tragic ends of some of the characters. Geoff Dyer (yes, here he is again) summed it up best:

“People and events loom out of the dense narrative foliage and then disappear. The writing can appear humdrum. Stuck in quagmire of incantatory banality [I like that one—harsh!], the dialogue seems to be contributing nothing except its own capacity to keep on coming” (Web) [and it should have stopped at page 300, or at least this reader should have]. For example: When the nephew to the Colonel, Skip Sands, is executed in Kuala Lumpur in 1983 for smuggling guns, his end was uneventful, unable to provoke the adequate response.

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When Skip Sands, a.k.a. William Benet, writes the letter to his love Kathy Jones, who he had met in Vietnam, and she reads it at the end of the novel (while sitting on the toilet) the moment is disconnected from the greater whole and even she doesn’t know how to react. Storm, a character who hunts down the Colonel’s ghost in Thailand, gives up his soul in a tribal ceremony at the end of the novel, and one can only think: who cares?

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E.M. Forster’s comments in Aspects of the Novel on round and flat characters helps to explain why Johnson is unable to hit the emotional target he was aiming for: “It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humour and appropriateness” (73). Skip Sands, Kathy Jones, the Colonel, Storm are all flat characters. Even Skip Sand’s last plea in the letter to Kathy doesn’t quite change who he is (although I am certain Johnson wrote the letter in a last ditch effort to establish a round character). For the sake of amusement, let’s read some of that letter:

Once upon a time there was a war [I’m not joking.]…

Among the denizens to be twisted beyond recognition—even, or especially, beyond recognition by themselves, were a young Canadian widow [Kathy Jones] and a young American man [Skip Sands] who alternately thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American [yup], 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…

Kathy, I believed I loved you. It never quite happened with anyone else. I take your memory with me. And I give you my thanks in return…

Once I thought I was Judas. But that’s not me at all…

If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t run. (689-697)

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The problem (or is it?) is that Johnson’s novel, for all that it is worth, is not trying to be literary (then why was it nominated for the Pulitzer?); it is, instead, trying to be entertainment, no more and no less.

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Gardner in his essay, “An Invective Against Mere Fiction,” explains this dilemma adequately:

Good writers do deal with trivial problems and trivial people. When they do, however, they recognize the triviality of their material and force the reader—perhaps for the first time—to recognize it too. Mere entertainment, then, provides escape from the way things are; entertainment art clarifies. Entertainment fails when considerations inside our outside the work force the reader to muse soberly on Truth—not the truth of fact, but the truth of human values. Entertaining art, on the other hand, fails when it turns into pure entertainment. (17)

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Johnson’s Tree of Smoke becomes pure entertainment (and America, in earnest, has become a society seeking pure entertainment, even in its literature—and American literature is currently undergoing such a change in its content with audiences seeking pure entertainment in soft porn titles like the best-selling trilogy Shades of Grey by E.L. James).

What the main problem in Johnson’s characters is that he is writing not of characters, not of real people on the page, but about high morals and lofty social issues.

“Great writers deal with problems which confront a healthy, intelligent man,” Gardner writes (none can be found in Tree of Smoke), “however grotesque the fictional representative; small writers deal with social and physiological traps” (in “An Invective Against Mere Fiction,” 15) and “entertainment requires cleverness, art richness” (also in “An Invective Against Mere Fiction,” 18).

Johnson is clever but Tree of Smoke is not rich, by any means.

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Gardner, in “More Smog from the Dark Satanic Mills,” clarifies what makes a great book, a book that is art rather than entertainment:

A book must be as wise as the reader is in his best moments, stripped of pettiness, prejudice, and obsession; it must urgently support the highest affirmations the reader is capable of making, penetrating—at least by implication—every nook and cranny of his moral experience; and finally it must have the weight of a reality which the reader, at least while he is reading, does not notice to be any less substantial than the world of fire engines, tables, and yellow house cats where he lives. (47)

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Tree of Smoke unfortunately is not “striped of pettiness” or “prejudice.” It, likewise, does not have “the weight of a reality” which one needs to be captivated for very long (some shorter scenes do work much better, similar to Johnson’s shorter pieces of fiction).

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Johnson does, in fact, write quite well (by this I mean he writes the way most MFA programs instruct and expect from its writers, but sometimes perfect writing can be a flaw in and of itself) and he achieves pure entertainment in Tree of Smoke, nothing to be scoffed at by any means; there is, however, one nagging question that must be answered in the negative (at least for me), and is one of the most important questions a book is faced with:

Will readers recommend this book to a friend?

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More Books to Consider:

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Bibliography

Dyer, Geoff. “Monstrous Cunning.” Guardian.co.uk. The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2007. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel (1927). New York: Harcourt, 1955. Print.

Gardner, John. “An Invective Against Mere Fiction.” On Writers and Writing. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1994. 13-35. Print.

—. “More Smog from the Dark Satanic Mills.” On Writers and Writing. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1994. 37-56. Print.

Johnson, Denis. Tree of Smoke. New York: Picador, 2007. Print.

Levine, Zachary. “Book Reviews: Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson.” Helium.com. Helium. 25 Sept. 2008. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.

Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages. New York: Fireside, 2000. Print,

Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.

Thai, Tran. “Name of the Game.” News.vneconomy.vn. VnEconomy, 22 Sept. 2010. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. notice section about Number One energy drink

“Achievements: 2001 Launch of Number One Tonic energy drink.” Tan Hiep Phat Co., n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.
“Competitive Strategy Analysis of Pepsi and Coca-Cola.” Scribd.com. n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. notice section on Number One energy drink

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On a side note:

Long (702 pages) and winded. The story could have been condensed into 300 pages.

For a book that won the National Book Award, it is worth reading once. But this book will be lost and forgotten in due time.

Nothing remarkable here.

Sorry, Mr. Johnson.

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