Roderick's Reviews > Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
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Jan 28, 08

Read in January, 2008

** spoiler alert ** This book makes me want to be a novelist at the same time that it makes me realise (again) how very hard it is to pull off. Denis Johnson manages to be psychologically concise and lyrical over and over again, which strikes me as incredibly difficult. How many different people can one person manage to be subtle and perceptive about at the same time? A lot, apparently, if you know what you're doing. Unlike, say, Ian McEwan. Just saying.

I'm having quite a hard time keeping up with a succession of characters who seem vaguely familiar from an earlier part of the novel, so I'm tracking back a lot, but that also makes me recognise how very skilful Johnson is.

In a strange way this novel is reminding me of Shirley Hazzard's Great Fire, even though they're very different in many ways. There's something about the intensity and the indirection of both books that makes them seem similar. Perhaps they're two sides of the same coin: novels about war faraway and long ago with an emotional intensity that figures in the smoke and fire of their titles?

It's also very interesting that we are forced to think about Graham Greene's Quiet American early on in this novel. I'm sure that's not coincidental.

Lots more about this to come as I read further, but so far this book is definitely living up to the hype, which is a very rare event these days.

*************

UPDATE:

OK, I've finished this now. Quite an incredible experience, and I feel quite strange saying that I loved this book without ever quite understanding it fully. Reviews pointed to events that I really don't recall happening (was the double really relaying the possibility of a nuclear strike to the north? Never happened as far as I could tell. Could someone give me a page number?) and theorized about things that seemed even more far-fetched than the Vietnam War itself - please, let's not try to hard to make this into a Christian allegory; those round pegs are very difficult to fit into the novel's square holes.

But what an amazing journey. I'd read this again if I had the energy, but I'm getting too old for that. I have to move on to the next one already.

Only my own inadequacy prevents me from giving this five stars. In other words, if I'd understood it better, it would have got them. I was also incredibly impressed with the invocation of other Vietnam texts, directly or indirectly, along the way.

There's a lot to be said about this novel. I hope some appropriately-equipped intellectuals will do it justice in years to come.

UPDATE UPDATE:

OK, I'm just going to give this five stars. It's better than everything I gave four stars, and it seems churlish to withhold the final star simply because I might not have grasped every detail of the subterfuge at work in the plot.
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Joshua Canaan ** spoiler alert **

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re: "was the double really relaying the possibility of a nuclear strike to the north?"

Indeed he was. The scene begins on page 332, and that Operation Tree of smoke involves a fiction regards nukes is first mentioned on page 342:

"...Suppose in the embassy bombing last year some papers got loose in the wind. A transcript, say--minutes of a meeting of a few old pirates who think they've got a nuclear weapon they can divert. These horrible folks want to smuggle it into Hanoi and put a stop to the nonsense..."

After which they proceed to hone some details. I can't remember if it was specifically mentioned again, though; there's quite a bit of information coming at you from all sides, and some of it inevitably gets buried.

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re: "I hope some appropriately-equipped intellectuals will do it justice in years to come."

Right there with ya.


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