Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
With the newest adaption of The Great Gatsby soon arriving at a silver screen near you, I’ve been interested to see various opinions of the novel appearing across the internet: it seems we agree that Gatsby is a great novel, but many of us didn’t enjoy it very much.
Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke—the 2007 National Book Award winner for fiction—may have given me a similar, Gatsby-esque experience. Before Tree of Smoke, I’d read a tragicomic book called The Imperfectionists; I enjoyed reading it but regretted that I had. Tree of Smoke is the opposite.
Could it be, however, that I’m only succumbing to the hubris inherent in wanting to enjoy important fiction? Johnson’s tome has all of those telltale signs. It won prestigious awards, ran on very long (700+ pages), lacked a coherent plot, jumped wildly between major characters and time periods, and ended with an irresolute sense of ennui. Send in the clowns!
But not so fast. There’s a difference between books that ridicule who we are (read: The Imperfectionists) and others that grieve over it. The former type dehumanizes us, but the latter yields a quiet sobriety that brings us back to our better angels. One of the characters in Tree of Smoke observes, “I know from experience that life is suffering, and that suffering comes from clinging to things that won’t stay.” I find that to be a bitter axiom, but probably a true one. Realistically, if our world is broken, what alternative do we have to clinging to things that won’t stay? Better to cling and then lament than not to need at all. Watching sports will only take us so far.
The Vietnam War provides the backdrop for the entirety of Tree of Smoke, although the novel is not really about the war. Instead, Vietnam becomes a projection of our conflicted psychology that removes us farther and farther from our unified selves. One soldier in the book wonders out loud, “It’s just stupid, man. Have you looked around yourself lately? This isn’t a war. It’s a disease. A plague.” The late 20th century’s allegorical cave.
The main character of the book, to the extent that there is one, is Skip Sands, a CIA psy-ops agent whose role in the conflict becomes increasingly unclear. Skip’s uncle, simply referred to as the “Colonel,” is a semi-rogue operative in the area; the novel begins with Skip serving his country by aiding him. Soon after, Skip merely helps his uncle as the U.S.’s interests (whatever they might have been in Vietnam) recede from view, after which Skip finally serves no larger interests than his own. (The “Tree of Smoke” itself is the Colonel’s master plan for spying against the Vietcong; however, although the Colonel calls the Tree of Smoke his “guiding light of a sincere goal for the function of intelligence,” the Tree of Smoke comes to represent the wisps of everything ambiguous about the war.) The fascinating aspect of the arc of Skip’s moral decline is that he ends up crossing the line specifically because it doesn’t look like there is one. None of us simply decides one day to be a monster; it grows on us.
Skip eventually is executed years following the Vietnam War for running guns throughout the far east. Days before he faces his firing squad, he writes to an ex-girlfriend, “After I left Vietnam I quit working for the giant-size criminals I worked for when I knew you and started working for the medium size. Lousy hours and no fringe benefits, but the ethics are clearer. And the stakes are plain. You prosper until you’re caught. Then you lose everything.” The author has already shown us, however, that Skip had lost everything long before he lost everything, even if (scarily) we’re not sure just when that first loss occurred. Still, we cling to what won’t stay, and therefore we suffer for Skip while we avoid the mirror.
We encounter other people in Tree of Smoke, most notably two brothers who grew up in poverty in the Southwestern United States and are turned into savages by Vietnam, but the reality of death so thoroughly pervades the novel that it becomes a character in its own right. (Remember how I said that this wasn’t a fun read?) Often in Tree of Smoke’s jungles, death merges with the mud, the puddles, the humidity, the tangles. “When death was around,” one grunt recalls, “you got right down to your soul. These others felt it too.” Maybe as a pastor I have to deal with death more frequently than most, but don’t we all feel death crowd in, at least sometimes? We want to disagree with the Colonel who at one point warns his crew, “I tell you this sincerely: there’d better not be a man at this table who in any way fears death. It’s all death anyway.” But we’re listening to him.
The problem is not only that we can’t escape the seriousness of the question, but that somehow we know we shouldn’t. The heaviness of the darkness is lost on most creatures, but not to us. One person in Tree of Smoke stares out into evening and writes in his journal, “Night again, the insects are loud, the moths are killing themselves on the lamp. Two hours ago I sat on the veranda looking out at the dusk, filled with envy for each living entity—bird, bug, blossom, reptile, tree, and vine—that doesn’t bear the burden of good and evil.” We can try to drown out the tolling bells and the burden of good and evil, but it would be a less than human existence. Hello, bug zapper.
Tree of Smoke ends strangely: it closes with Skip’s ex-girlfriend, who is just a minor character, stepping into center stage for the first time (after 700 pages!). Perhaps Johnson’s focus straightforwardly shifts to her because she outlives all of the other actors in the novel. The final sentences of the book portray a sense of desperation along with a concept previously unexplored in Tree of Smoke yet often conspicuous by the emphasis upon death as its photo-negative. As the curtain falls, Johnson writes, “She sat in [a large group of people] thinking—someone here has cancer, someone has a broken heart, someone’s soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can’t remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who’ve ruined their health, worshipped their own lies, spat on their dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. All will be saved.” Before these last words, who in Tree of Smoke said anything about being rescued? But it’s another human question.