Tree of Smoke Tree of Smoke discussion

Tree of Smoke

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message 1: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed I'm reading this now--would like to discuss the book with anyone currently reading it as well. Love the non-linear structure....sort of throws me into the story.

Bina Ed, I'm reading it now too. The non-linearity makes it interesting, to see the ways the themes are emerging, patterns in lives are overlapping, right? It also makes the build-up toward war (and the characters' arrival) in Vietnam somersault forward in an inevitable way, perhaps the same way that war today seems driven ahead by a political engine that ordinary people can't capture in a freeze frame.
I'm heading on the road with no internet for awhile with the book as my companion. Good luck...and share your thoughts when you're through?

Dick Sorry, but I did not enjoy this book. The "non-linear" style sometimes distracted I thought. I would rather have had a simpler timeline since the characters were almost always so conflicted anyway.

Christian Hamaker I started into the 18-disc audio version of this book and was quickly drawn in. Great narrator, and a structure that reminds me of Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." But what I like most about the book -- and which hasn't been commented on here yet -- is the religious angle. I discovered an interview with Norman Rush that touched on this before I came to the first mentions (I think they were the first) of God and faith, toward the end of disc 2:

"Pretty much everything I have to say about Tree of Smoke is in my NYRB review of it, really. Does this excerpt, from the end of that review, address your question? “Denis Johnson appears, in Tree of Smoke, to be dramatizing what he takes to be the consequences, in one war, of a widespread failure to believe in God. On the other hand, Johnson also seems to offer a companion suggestion that God, like the metaphorical God in the novel, Colonel Francis X. Sands, is powerful, mysterious, and ineffectual—the classic deus absconditus. I suspect that Johnson didn't intend this last conclusion to be drawn. There are strong clues to his true position in this matter in the last few pages of the book, and preeminently in its last two lines—which I won't cite, since so much rests on their interpretation. The reader will judge."

I'm only approaching the halfway point and don't know anything about those last few lines, so if you want to delve into them, please precede your comments with a "Spoilers" tag. Otherwise, in general, did those who read the book have any inkling of what Johnson is getting at. His stabs at Calvinism are particularly intriguing, and rooted in ideas about how to discuss predestination that go back to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and earlier.

I'll have to check up on his other work. The book is smashing, so far.

message 5: by Jesse (last edited Mar 29, 2008 07:41PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jesse Spoiler Alert:

I also read a lot into the Calvinist angle of the novel. But I think he used religion as a larger metaphor, as a way to offer redemption for the US's failed foreign policy of the 1960's and 70's. Thats why the novel ends with Kathy Jones, the tormented aid worker who is drawn to the dark ideas of Calvinism, believing that some souls were made and destined to go to hell. This idea is so black and white, thinking that some people are just evil and some are just good, much like how the US viewed Vietnam and Communism in general. And yet the mind set clearly didn't work in Vietnam; all we were left with was this Tree of Smoke (which in many ways reminded me of the Fog of War, the documentary about Robert McNamara who was Secretary of Defense from 61 to 68.) This confusion caused many good people to make morally compromising decisions in the name of "fighting evil". But most ended up commiting atrocities that were every bit as evil as what the enemy was doing. Thus, Johnson's ending is a message of redemption to the United States and a statement of equality to people around the world.: "All will be saved" Calvinism is just another myth that needed to be burst in order to move foward, much the same way that containment, or the domino effect were myths about communism in South East Asia that needed to be burst in order to move on. The sad thing is that we are right back in the same situation in Iraq. And Johnson knows this all to well as he couldn't accept his National Book Award in person, he was on assignment in Baghdad.

Daniel What great insight. I will have to go back and read this again and try to see it from this point of view, because your thoughts here have changed my entire point of view on the book. Thanks for that. I really appreciate it when someone takes time to post insightful, thoughtful analysis on a book and shares it here with strangers. Preach on!

Jesse well, thank you good sir (if i'm may be so audacious to believe your comments are directed toward me) - i love denis johnson's work and was kinda peeved when, after this novel came out, there were articles in the atlantic saying how if this novel is the best our generation has to offer than it is a sad sign that points to the decline and impending death of the novel. of course this cri de couer is bellowed by every older generation as new styles emerge (or re-emerge as style is always cyclical), or as some younger, embittered, failed novelists wants to take potshots to gain attention. nonetheless, i thought this novel was wonderful, as good as - and more expansive than - angels, which also featured the houston brothers. i think so many critics decry a novel without even taking the time to understand what the novel's about: they dislike the writing on the first page and decide the book sucks; and that paints the whole rest of that reading. alas, what can one do, but try and post your thoughts in an open forum and hope to influence maybe one persons mind - godspeed!

Daniel Yes, Jesse, those comments were for you. I like to think that I give books real chances, that I make an honest attempt to understand. Especially when a book wins the kind of acclaim that this won. I wrote a detailed review here expressing my confusion with the novel, but tried to highlight as well everything that I did genuinely like about it. So, I feel like I was on the right track with this book, and with a little more effort, I can really get what the author was intending which is a terrific payoff as a reader.

Ivan Labayne To begin talking about Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson’s most famous novel to date, one needs clarity of thought more than things to say, an incisive judgment more than an affluence of words, earned reflections more than noted quotations.
If I try to be terse here, I see little difficulty. To do so in talking about Tree of Smoke would be as easy as stating that it is yet another “postmodern” work stuffed with multiple characters caught in several, not necessarily connected subplots, inviting the seeming convenience of that tag which eases the readers of the pressure of getting something out of the work after they read it. On the other hand, in an attempt to be straightforwardly encompassing, one can say that this novel about Vietnam War, more than probing the political factors that surround the war and taking a position with regard to it, talks about the disillusionment and lost of spirit experienced by the people during that infamous war and in the end, subtly suggests heading on after all offenses have been made and all settlements have been arranged.
There are two major subplots here: first, that of Skip Sands and his prominent uncle Colonel Francis Sands and their psychological operations during the war and the Houston Brothers, Bill and James, and how they spent separate military services in the war. There is no task to be designated as a tall one here, for fiction to take a huge historical juncture such as the Vietnam War as its topic, its setting, and its inspiration simultaneously; the issue is less of tasks but, as always, creativity. Perhaps no one should expect Johnson’s novel to attempt to limn the war immaculately. While “factual” documentaries which more vocally claim to attempt and do just this can be imputed with several biases and temporal and spatial differences that naturally already distort the events as they happened, fiction can do better by not trumpeting such claims to truth and focus instead on arguably a more challenging and engaging task: rewrite a past event and render it available to the future generations either merely for their textual consumption or the eventual change in their views about themselves and the world.

message 10: by Ivan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ivan Labayne

If you have think of words, put them here: On Vietnam War

For the last century that has been largely marked by a number of wars (international and civil) and which eventually became the key junctions in that century, Vietnam War is arguably the biggest of all. Not so much for impact since the countries involved here are definitely less than in the case of the two World Wars, but for its outcome – the loss of steadying global power America. I myself obviously was not there and it was only through history textbooks, documentaries and fictional work where I can transport myself to the skin and heart of the war. But being informed of the present socio-economic arrangements around the world, it is intriguing to look back at Vietnam War and how the entire thing happened; most notably, how America suffered the defeat, how did the North Vietnam forces outhustled and outsmarted their Southern counterparts and their American friends.

Given America’s continual intervention in latent
occupation of still several countries in the world today, it appeals to my curiosity how they faced a shameful defeat in Vietnam and what did their antagonists did to achieve the feat.
Interestingly, I also had the vaguest of ideas about Vietnam War and this was not something imposed by my pressing thoughts on the storied-ness of things and the perpetual persistence against the totality of experience. Perhaps my history lessons of the past should be damned but I was not afforded a much earlier chance to vicariously experience and reflect on the Vietnam War. And with Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, the themes were rather not unexpected: disillusionment, the crumbling down of appearances previously regarded as reality, and the ensuing test of faith and pining for higher orders, like truth, like salvation.

At the heart of this novel are deception operations, double agents, one gods yet different administrations and breaking chains of command that can easily make one terribly unsure of himself and the motivations of his actions in his surroundings. In the midst of a searing war, allegiances were blurred, personalities were a puzzle, if not downright anonymous, and most of all, everything – pacts, trusts, lives – is ephemeral. Colonel Sands is renowned in his field, but in order to be like that, he had to devise psychological warfare code-named Tree of Smoke and essentially cut himself out of the chain of command. And his nephew, Skip, was put on his side that acted as a double agent to sponge information from suspicious people. Eventually, the Colonel died, or did not, but in any case, he had been turned into a myth -- at least in the mind of Skip, --just like all of the things that put them in Vietnam at the first place.

This novel is in-your-face tragic debilitating, one that shows you events while only revealing more gaps, more hidden gaps, more piquing unknowns. With much kick and force, it is a novel that consciously teases you of the high likelihood that what you see is not exactly what you get, so do not be too attached, do not fall right away to the words on the page. Here are classic lines where Johnson seems to intensify and calls attention to the supposed reality-dream, reality-appearances dichotomy:

“Sooner or later the mind grasps at a thought and follows it into the labyrinth, one thought branching into another. Then the labyrinth caves in on itself and you find yourself outside. You were never inside – it was a dream”(36).

This was Sergeant Storm saying something Skip just recalled:

“We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream” (291).

Then back in Manila, while with Eddie Aguinaldo, Andres Pitchfork and Skip, the Colonel uttered, perhaps nonchalantly, perhaps as a matter-of-fact,

“War is ninety-percent myth anyway, isn’t it?” (61).

The reality-dream thing is something that may have gone oversold but that does not diminish one bit the validity of the claim, especially in an arena where nationality and color and other preexisting category are shed off, friends and foes are only conditional (“But Hao – enemy or ally? Trung doubted he would ever know.” (554) and danger and eventual death both can come from virtually anywhere.

As the flimsiest of consolations go: love, lusts, lost hopes

In the thick of all tensions from within and without, creeping all over the bodies and souls of each character whose personalities and goals and motivations are ever nebulous and problematic, there are only a few things that can go as far as comforting.

With Skip, he found that in Kathy Jones, volunteer for the International Child Relief Effort and then the World Children’s Services, and his eventual spiritual and sexual partner. They met first in the Philippines and then in South Vietnam where we can assume Skip was already haunted by the things happening to him (soon, his mother will die), he said this to her: “You’re a goddamn relief. You’re making everything go away.” And then things occurred to him, and things happened. It occurred to Skip that “one person on this Earth had become known to him,” and then they slept together side by side and he would never see her again after that night, and he never really saw her again after that night. And to me that is one of the more heart-breaking things to happen in this novel. This scene, and how it became the last where Skip and Kathy were together. For in the succeeding phases of utter cluelessness and faithlessness, there were alone when they could have each other to stare at.

That ended 1968 and the meat of the novel is upcoming, more deaths, more revelations of mysteries, more falling down to purposelessness, to reeking bumness.

Kallie For me Tree of Smoke skewers (too neat a word) the self-serving delusion that 'Americans' (or any geo-politically dominant group) always mean well. The brilliant dialogue gives us all manner of disordered thoughts and feelings. Perhaps it is about human nature.

Richard Krawiec I love much of Johnson's work, all of it - poetry, stories, novels. But not indiscriminately. Fiskador and Almost Dead didn't do a lot for me.

I thought the first chapter of this novel was arguably one of the finest first chapters ever written.

But the rest of the book didn't come up to that standard for me. Too intellectualized maybe?

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