Tree of Smoke – what Andy thinks of “a Catch-22 for our times”

September 12, 2009

Well, the first thing I think is that it’s not a Catch-22 for our times. That’s not to disparage Denis Johnson’s novel. It’s a remarkable piece of work. But a sustained piece of brutally funny anti-war satire it ain’t. It’s brutal at times, it’s funny and satirical at times and it’s certainly anti-war – or at least it explores the futility and hopelessness of armed conflict, which may or may not be exactly the same thing. But I don’t think Johnson was ever trying to achieve anything similar to Joseph Heller, which is probably just as well because it would’ve been doomed to failure, I suspect. Still, “a Catch-22 for our times” is a nice quote to have on the front of your book.

Tree of Smoke skilfully weaves a number of stories together. Primarily it’s the story of Skip Sands, a CIA spy and his mysterious, Kurtz-like uncle. There’s also a missionary nurse, Kathy, who’s obsessed with Calvinist notions of predetermination (the theory that God decided before the creation of the earth who was going to heaven and who was going to hell. Yup, fascinating). There are a couple of grunts, too, young brothers whose stories are among the most interesting Johnson has to tell and yet who, to some extent, seem included primarily merely to illustrate the impact the war had on those who fought it. I’d have liked a little more from Bill and James Houston. There’s a good few scenes from the perspective of the Vietnamese and while some of these are pivotal they occasionally have the feel of having been included only because Johnson wanted to give the local population a voice. Again, interesting scenes and characters that could’ve been expanded. Although that would’ve made a long book quite a bit longer.

Tree of Smoke’s weaknesses are fairly trifling things. Apart from the couple I’ve mentioned I suppose it could be argued that one Kurtz was always enough, two was a bounty and three is verging on the ridiculous. Of course this character isn’t directly based on Conrad’s original in Heart of Darkness; Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now obviously was. Yesterday I read a J.G. Ballard short story about a mission up the Amazon that also included a Kurtz-like character, too. In Ballard’s defence, his story was from the late ’50s/early ’60s, long before Brando had etched himself on to the popular imagination. Johnson has a little more to answer for, since his book and Coppola’s film are both based on the same war.

There are other similarities with Apocalypse Now (and other depictions of the Vietnam War) – some scenes have a surreal, absurd edge to them, obviously inspired by the copious amounts of alcohol and other substances consumed by the troops but also by the knowledge that this was an idiotic, absurd war that should never have been fought. I’m not sure that Johnson’s as convinced of that as I am, actually – his characters (Skip especially, but others as well) seem at times utterly at sea as far as what’s right and wrong, what’s true and false, what’s happening and not happening, what’s real and imaginary. Thankfully he doesn’t descend into post-modern, metafictive wankery which is a risk when you start exploring those kinds of dichotomies. Actually I’m not sure dichotomy is the right word. I’m not even sure if that’s how you spell it. Anyway, his characters’ dubious approach to so much in their lives makes me wonder if Johnson’s approach to his subject matter might be a bit more amorphous than we initially assume.

There are also religious elements to this story that probably deserve to be examined more closely than I’m capable of. The title itself is a literal translation of the “pillar” of smoke that led the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity (the Old Testament might be a load of old bollocks – much like the New Testament – but it’s got some cracking yarns. Seriously). I think the tree of smoke gets another guernsey in the book of Joel (a “prophet” – someone who yelled at the Israelites for enjoying themselves too much) and it may also get a mention in the New Testament, I think. There are occasional references throughout the book that make me wonder whether Johnson has incorporated a religious subtext that missed me completely. If he did, I, um… It missed me completely.

Kathy’s interesting though. Her Calvinist pessimism – and trust me, it’s a pessimistic outlook to have on life, it really is – permeates most of her scenes. Although she’s mourning the death of her husband, shagging a CIA spy she has a considerable amount of contempt for and not so quietly going insane, all at the same time. So there’s quite a bit permeating most of her scenes. But what’s interesting is what happens in the book’s final scene (yeah yeah, spoiler alert – the Yanks lost the fuckin’ war). In fact the book’s final lines. In fact the book’s final words. Having spent much of the book believing very few of the world’s people are headed to heaven, and the vast majority are on their way somewhere else, and if I remember unsure of exactly where she’s headed, she ends the book with these words: “…yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. All will be saved.” I’m not quite sure how to take this, given that Johnson’s book has detailed the myriad ways in which the war has destroyed lives. Irony? Heroic hope against the odds? My money’s on the latter but I have to admit knowing I have to think about it makes me feel really dumb.

This blog is longer than I expected it to be. It’s been quite a while since I finished Tree of Smoke and a few weeks since Nettie and I discussed it, so my thoughts aren’t as clear as they once were. I have misgivings and I’m not sure it’s the towering work of literary magnificence some have held it up to be since it was published but it’s a really, really good book and it’s definitely one that goes on the list of books that should be re-read, at some point in the future, if I manage to find the time.


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