Thursday, September 6, 2012

Clusters, Branches: Communication In Denis Johnson's "Tree Of Smoke"


During my reading of Denis Johnson's Tree Of Smoke, I found myself being pulled in a few directions. When I started it, I made the occasional mention of my progress on Facebook and Twitter, and some of my friends, with whom I share a passion for literature, mentioned how much they loved the work. It's not that I wasn't enjoying it at first, but I was in a rare position of being slightly confused by Johnson's intentions, and I was overwhelmed by the immediate introductions of dozens of characters, and the intertwined dialogues and plot sequences. Admitting this, in any form, makes me feel like a fraud sometimes. I'm someone who champions complex fictions that require time, dedication, and the metaphorical rolling up of sleeves; on this blog and in conversations, I've made probably far too many references to my appreciation of David Foster Wallace and William Gaddis, two writers whose styles require time, note-taking, and the realization that an occasional stumble through the narratives will happen. In Johnson's work, however, I found the first two hundred or so pages to be fascinating and well-written, but I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I was missing one or two plot points, or that there was something between the lines that I wasn't picking up. Again, I'm sure this happens to everyone, even people with many more books checked off their lists. I was so caught up and afraid that I was being a poor reader, but once I let myself get into the story and its progression, it seemed to be an easy navigation to the ending.

Tree Of Smoke can be classified as a Vietnam war novel much in the way Chad Harbach's The Art Of Fielding can be classified as a baseball novel: it's true in theory, but there's so much more beyond that designation. The novel revolves around the exploits of William "Skip" Sands, a CIA operative working in Psychological Operations. His uncle, Francis is the head of Psych Ops, and works as both a commander as well as a seemingly mythical figure in military and civilian circles. The narrative comes to include the brothers Bill and James Houston, who serve in the Navy and Army, respectively; Bill's story serves as a balance between military and civilian life during and after the war, while James's platoon comes into contact with Sands' Psych Ops unit. Kathy Jones, a Canadian nurse, is a fiery combination of religious intensity and a love interest for Skip. Vietnamese associates, especially Nyguen and Trung, work with Francis and Skip both overtly and secretively. A mysterious German assassin appears at the beginning and the end of the novel, and a series of mysterious documents, double agents, and general (but intentional) confusion about the war's ultimate goal come into play. Johnson presents all of these singular and interconnected stories, which in other hands would serve as a basic foundation for a basic, often-told account of the American involvement in Vietnam. However, Tree Of Smoke is crafted in a distinctly postmodern fashion, sometimes veering on experimental.

If this seems like a vague summary, it's not. The novel itself, through its dialogue and descriptions, is self-reflective, with some passages hinting at the general atmosphere. The cited passage below is a great example, and while I didn't read Tree Of Smoke as any sort of metaphor for Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was published in 2007 and sometimes expresses ideas that have surfaced in America's modern conflicts.

"'Unknown what? I say we look at it in terms we can utilize,' the colonel said. 'I say they found themselves engaged at the level of myth. War is ninety percent myth anyway, isn't it? In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to a level of human sacrifice, don't we, and we constantly invoke our God. It's got to be about something bigger than dying, or we'd all turn deserter. I think we need to be much more conscious of that. I think we need to be invoking the other fellow's gods too. And his devils, his aswang. He's more scared of his gods and his devils and his aswangs than he'll ever be of us (Johnson 61-62)."

Johnson's dialogue manages to say much and little at the same time, with so many implied, unspoken meanings and intentions. This happens almost every time Bill and James Houston talk, with the two brothers seemingly shooting the shit but hinting at heavier, deeper looks at their dissatisfaction and mutual isolation. A conversation between Skip and Kathy, composed of what seems to be standard dialogue, manages to encompass a diverse array of meanings on religion and identity. This happens very often within the book, and sometimes it becomes a pleasant challenge to figure out what sections are just conversation pieces and what sections are examples of the novel's themes.

"She said, 'We Westerners have many blessings. A freer will. We're free from certain...' She stalled in her thoughts.

'We have rights. Liberty. Democracy.'

'That's not what I mean. I don't know how to say it. There are questions about free will.' She trembled to ask him now if he'd perhaps read John Calvin...No. Even the question was an abyss.

'Are you feeling okay?'

'Mr. Sands,' she said, 'do you know Christ?'

'I'm Catholic.'

'Yes. But do you know Christ?'

'Well,' he said, 'not in the way I think you mean.'

'Neither do I.'

To this he said nothing.

'I thought I knew Christ,' she said, 'but I was entirely mistaken.'

She noticed he sat very still when he had nothing to say.

'We're not all crazy here, you know,' she said. --Another one he had no reply for. 'I'm sorry,' she said (Johnson 105)."

Johnson's descriptions and place settings are incredibly detailed and vivid, giving the reader a strong visual sense of the surroundings, a stability that counteracts the mysterious actions and motives of the soldiers and Vietnamese citizens. The nightlife, even though full of drunken debauchery, prostitution, and madness, is carefully mapped out. The balance between the sometimes experimental construction and the occasional foray into strong, literary evocations is seamless. The strangeness is captivating, along with some beautiful similes and metaphors.

"He strolled into the red-light district--Angeles consisted of little else--the slop, the lurid stink, the thirsty, flatly human, open-mouthed stares of the women as he passed dank shacks with rock 'n' roll music, as hot and rich with corruption as vampire mausoleums. The wanton mystery of the Southeast Asian night: he loved it as passionately as he loved America, but secretly, with dark lust; and he admitted to himself without evasion that he didn't care if he never went home (Johnson 189)."


Documents play a vital role in the novel, adding even more layers. Skip ends up staying in a house once owned by a deceased doctor and ends up studying and analyzing the notes and papers that have been left behind. He's also responsible for maintaining his Uncle's files, full of intelligence information for the CIA. The colonel is also responsible for a detailed, seemingly academic documentation of the goals for Psych Ops, which are controversial and dense. In Johnson's recreations of these documents, there's a stark reversal to the atmosphere of the conversations: while the dialogue leaves much between the lines, the documents are so full of information that they become just as open-ended. This, in my opinion, is part of the war metaphors. In any war justification, there are obvious, public statements and secretive, allusive meanings that are meant to be kept secret. The colonel's article is a clever, evasive metaphor for the book itself (the aforementioned self-reflection) and the disastrous aftermath of the American involvement in Vietnam.

"WE DON'T HAVE AN INTRO YET

Want to revitalize the distinction between analysis and intelligence--clarity of thought, purity of language, correctness of speech, etc, clarity of fact--appreciating how a lack of clarity has led to the complete perversion of the intelligence function of our Agency. Its motives and its purpose. And its means. Its methods.

Let's hit that as the main thing--the distinction between analysis and intelligence.

Orwell--'Politics and the English language'
As far as intro--
BASICALLY TO SAY HERE THAT WE'RE TALKING ABOUT TWO FUNCTIONS OF THE CLANDESTINE SERVICES--INTELLIGENCE AND ANALYSIS. AND THE BREAKDOWN OF BARRIERS BETWEEN THE TWO ETC


On the next page began the typed material. Skip anticipated an embarrassing mess (Johnson 284-285)."

Have I touched upon everything in Tree Of Smoke? Not even close. Even my introductory summary leaves out some of the characters and doesn't hint at their eventual actions (and, in some cases, demises). When I wrote about William Gaddis' The Recognitions, I had to divide my thoughts into two separate essays, and really, that's what I should have done with this work. There are simply too many angles and themes to discuss in one essay without going into a several pages' worth of analysis. Denis Johnson is the rare writer whom I've heard of many times before reading his work, but had no concrete ideas or notions about his style. He's written a collection of interconnected stories (Jesus' Son), a novella with (from what I've read about it) deceptively simple tones of Americana (last year's Train Dreams), and several longer, more labyrinth-like works. When I get to these other pieces of his bibliography, I'll know then whether or not Tree Of Smoke was a proper introductory work. Also, have I missed the "point" of this novel? It's possible, but I feel that focusing on the communication aspects provides a decent introduction. By combining simplicity and complexity in how the work unfolds, Johnson has intrigued me with his ability to, even if this was done unintentionally, show how language, dialogue, and writing can be shaped into assets and detriments to understanding. As a blanket conclusion, this is also how wars (including Vietnam and Iraq) are justified and explained in public and private. I've since read reviews of Tree Of Smoke full of breathless praise and constructive criticism, but I was relieved to find that none of those reviews, even the ones in major publications, came anywhere close to fully explaining the work. I hope that my focus is at least somewhat illuminating, even if, for an angle of a writer's sense of communication, there's so much left unmentioned.

Work Cited:
Johnson, Denis. Tree Of Smoke. Copyright 2007 by Denis Johnson.

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