There's an insistence of time in Denis Johnson's book, "Tree of Smoke." But imagine, here, a person insisting that milk is poured from the bottom of t...moreThere's an insistence of time in Denis Johnson's book, "Tree of Smoke." But imagine, here, a person insisting that milk is poured from the bottom of the carton, not the top.
The book titles its sections chronologically (coming at a pace of about every 75 pages or so, '1963' to '1970' with a '1983' epilogue). We do not have to deal with flashbacks or time travel. But the sections do no orient the reader in any real way. Despite this, we, at the very least, can be comforted with the knowledge that time is always moving forward.
This is a fact we take for granted in other novels. Some authors deconstruct plot specifically to disorient. Others tell their stories, slaves of time: beginning, middle, end, blah. Both styles are unskilled. Johnson cares more for time than most. There isn't actually any deconstruction happening here. There are breaks in time, certainly. Skips that are necessary to move us forward--precisely at the point we need to, though we don't always want to move.
It is Johnson's fascination with time, I think, that provides such strength to this book. For much of it, his character's (as with history's) sense of the Vietnam War disintegrates, reconstitutes, then takes stark and horrible turns. His pace is explosive--in the literal sense: things explode, morals explode, characters explode. And then we are treated to deep revelations that work microexplosively: mind blown.
But those moments come--always--when we least expect them. We're trapped in time. We follow along, knowing that there WILL BE a future because in another ten pages another section, titled for the next year, awaits. When we feel like the whole world must stop, it defies us and keeps going.
In the mists of our confusion--in jungle war--time evaporates. I am distanced from it until it starts raining again.
Some have compared this book to Joseph Conrad. Maybe "Apocalypse Now?" I don't like those comparisons. There's no faux transcendence here. I would liken it more to Wallace's "Infinite Jest" in that we are treated to--consistently, inexorably--and berated by words. Sometimes they are innocuous or banal. But then there are moments so beautifully written, so artfully constructed, so thoroughly researched and positioned that I was agog.
It is also partly Heller's "Catch 22." It is comic maybe? I think so. But I would never dare laugh. Is it ironic? Inept? I don't know. War is every "i" except irenic.
So here I am: 700 pages of sheer, stupefying excellence later. I don't know if I should mourn or be happy that time--finally, for this book anyway--has stopped.(less)
Two things to ponder regarding the great Doctorow's treatise on writing-as-religiosity:
1. "It is as if piety itself has a flawed circuit that tends to...moreTwo things to ponder regarding the great Doctorow's treatise on writing-as-religiosity:
1. "It is as if piety itself has a flawed circuit that tends to blow, and the devotion to God becomes the will to power" (p. 90).
2. On current political discord: "The instructive image is from Dante's "Inferno," Canto XXV. We are in a pouch of the Eighth Circle, where the thieves reside. A typical transaction occurs between a thief and one of Hell's manifestations, in this case a monstrous six-legged lizard-like creature who leaps onto a thief, wraps its middle feet around its belly, pins his two arms with its forelegs, and, wrapping its rear feet aound his knees, swings its tail up between his legs and sinks its teeth into his face. And so intertwined, the monster and thief, they begin to melt into one another like hot wax, their two heads joining, their substances merging, until a new third creature is created though somehow redolent of both of them. And it slowly slithers away into the darkness" (p. 106).
And yet, this book is about writing. Brilliant.(less)