When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.
Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else. According to The New York Times, which in 2006 sent a questionnaire to writers, editors, and critics, a collection of Johnson’s short stories titled Jesus’ Son is regarded by some as the best American book of the past 25 years. He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer. Denis Johnson is, in short, the sort of novelist whose work one expects to be reviewed on the cover of every prominent newspaper’s book section, as Tree of Smoke was in September. Equally predictable was the reviewers’ implicit injunction that we should ask not what the book can do for us, but what it can do for Johnson’s place in American letters. This much is standard Important Writer treatment, and for all I know, Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times), Jim Lewis (The New York Times Book Review), and other reviewers consider Johnson worthy of it no matter what he puts out. What I find difficult to believe is that they admire Tree of Smoke. For one thing, their own prose is better than anything in it. For another, they try to lower our expectations for the book even as they cry it up as the main event of the fall publishing season. Lewis, for example, gives a marveling nod at the part in which “two drunken soldiers, one of them an amputee, have a long, inane conversation, during which the disabled one announces, ‘My invisible foot hurts.’”
An amputee with a phantom limb, fancy that. Lewis’s aside that Tree of Smoke “doesn’t feel like a Denis Johnson novel” lends weight to the assumption that a writer cannot become famous by writing like this, at least not yet. But with no way to prove insincerity on the reviewers’ part, I have to pretend to believe that they really do consider Tree of Smoke to be “something like a masterpiece” (Lewis) and “bound to become one of the classic works of literature” (Kakutani) about the Vietnam War. (The novel, a New York Times best seller, has been nominated for a National Book Award.)
Underlying the hype is the silly notion that if a work introduces plenty of characters and traipses after them for enough years and pages, it is ipso facto ambitious. The true mark of an ambitious work is its style and depth. We would recognize Anna Karenina as such a novel even if only its first few pages had survived, because they depict characters with extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives. In contrast, Tree of Smoke starts off with one Seaman Bill Houston shooting a tiny monkey he sees in the jungle. (The symbolism of this happening hours after JFK’s assassination is crude in more ways than one.) The animal, evidently a gun buff, spreads its arms “enthusiastically” before dropping to the ground, where its mood changes. “With fascination, then with revulsion, [Bill] realized that the monkey was crying.” Such a realization would take far too short a time for anyone to become fascinated, let alone for fascination to yield to revulsion—and why revulsion anyway? Later, Bill meets up with his younger brother James, a soldier. For some reason, Bill does not know James’s age, and appears surprised to learn that he is not yet 18. James “done lied” to the recruiter. The level of their conversation can be imagined.
We are then introduced to another central character, Skip, with the news that
having been raised in the American heartland he was dedicated to steering clear of personal controversy, to ignoring scowls, honoring evasiveness, fending off voices raised in other rooms.
Ignoring scowls is no way to steer clear of controversy, but never mind that. The derivation of a man’s personality from his place of origin is the stuff of second-rate thrillers. After two months in the Philippines, Skip
liked the people, he hated the climate. It was the start of his fifth year serving the United States as a member of its Central Intelligence Agency. He considered both the Agency and his country to be glorious.
Anyone expecting a psychological novel from characters so lacking in complexity deserves to be disappointed.
There is no point in dwelling on the story line, because even some of the book’s admirers have conceded its sluggishness and overlength—albeit with some humbug about how flaws make a good novel more likable, perfection being such a turnoff, etc. As for the action, it never feels authentic. Soldiers do not laugh in unison or call out frantically for M&Ms during a sudden and intense firefight, nor would a soldier crawling through bush find the attendant lacerations “exhilarating.” Not once does the reader feel fear or tension. Whether it’s because of the compulsive references to the Kennedys or the constant emphasis on the soldier as rock-and-roll hipster, one thinks only of the silver-screen ’Nam and of Life, not life, feeble substitutes for the riches to be had from Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
Not even Robert De Niro’s combination of Special Forces uniform and goatee in The Deer Hunter—which elicited howls of laughter in the theater near Fort Ord, California, where I first saw it—is as preposterous as Tree of Smoke’s Black Man, whom the U.S. Army and the tropical jungle allow to keep his name patch covered with tape. He prefers to be called Black Man, you see. He also likes gruffly telling other soldiers how small his penis is. Black Man is one of many indications that the author is unfamiliar not only with military life but with male company in general.
Another is the dialogue. This is Skip’s uncle, a freewheeling colonel who is meant to seem intelligent and tough but comes off as neither:
“Let’s face it, our whole civilization is a layer of sediment. In the end some mongrel barbarian wakes up in the morning and stands with one foot on a rock and the other on the kicked-over vessel of Kennedy’s eternal flame. And that vessel is cold and dead, and that sonofabitch doesn’t even know he’s standing on it. He’s just taking a piss in the morning. When I get up in the morning and step behind the tent to break wind and void my bladder, whose grave am I pissing on?”
Note the jumble of language levels, the artsy compound adjective thrown in with profanity and genteelisms. At first I assumed that Johnson was poking fun at the colonel for trying to conceal a lack of schooling, just as Hollywood makes us smile at gangsters’ efforts to sound well-bred. (Much of Dickens’s humor consists of precisely this sort of thing.) Alas, almost everyone in Tree of Smoke talks like the colonel, including the narrator: “He didn’t see where she made water. When she wanted to piss … ”
Fear of repetition, and an inability to write in such a way as to obviate it, may be partly to blame for these clashes. (A jeep is referred to the second time around as a “conveyance.”) The bigger problem is that Johnson has no sense of style, of which words are right for a given context. This in turn makes it difficult to figure out whose point of view we are dealing with:
Eight of the villagers attended, seven old men and someone’s grandchild all sitting in candlelight around the temple’s centerpiece without a corpse to look at, only a small crowd of bric-a-brac, mostly wooden Buddhas painted gold.
I had to backtrack in case I’d missed a white man peering through a window, because from the villagers’ perspective a less appropriate word than bric-a-brac is hard to imagine. Nor does it fit the perspective of the narrator, who likes to contrast the Americans’ parochialism with the quiet wisdom of the East, or his version thereof. No, Johnson writes of bric-a-brac for the same reason that he describes a woman as being “in actual point of fact spherical,” for the same reason he writes, “To read and feel the meaning erode under the work of his mind—he was hungry for that pleasure.” Erode!
The following inner monologue is meant to show us the dizzying heights that Skip scales while reading highbrow French books: “I want my mind to fail before the truth. I want the truth to flow over me only as something sensual and as nothing else. Want it to wet me …” It is obvious that Johnson does not respect words enough to think they should mean something. But let us take an example from the first few pages, which reviewers seem to consider a high point of the book:
From all around came the ten thousand sounds of the jungle, as well as the cries of gulls and the far-off surf, and if [Bill] stopped dead and listened a minute, he could hear also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears.
Could someone standing in such a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse? The second half of the sentence cancels out the first, which is to say that the writer hasn’t thought his way through, hasn’t fully felt, any of it. As for snickering and creak, they will please only those who skim for startling word combinations, for novelty alone.
Johnson fills the space between purple passages by dropping his sentence subjects, leaving bursts of adjectives to stand alone, and generally doing a spot-on impersonation of Annie Proulx: “She waited in a dirt-floor café. Tin-roofed, straw paneled. Sat at a table drinking hot tea from a tin can … ” (This prose style grated horribly on me when I first read The Shipping News. It has since become so common I suspect someone is teaching it.) Description is simulated through bald lists of pallid images. When James rides a truck, he sees “rain dripping from gigantic leaves, deformed vehicles, small people,” and so on. The reader must linger over slapdash formulations in order to make sense of them: “Listening for his murderers, he became aware of the oppressive life of the jungle, of the collective roar of insects, as big as any city’s at noon.”
It would be a rare novel that did not yield some infelicities, but I defy anyone to argue that those quoted here are not representative of every page of Tree of Smoke. I might also point out that no book review can convey the tedium of reading bad prose in such unrelieved bulk. Perhaps we can all agree on the need for at least one longish excerpt. Meet Edward:
At the edge of a burning field once he’d found a dead dog with newborn pups at her teats, and he’d taken the minuscule beasts home and tried to nurse them from an eyedropper. That’s who he’d been once.
Recently he’d been struck with an idea for a wicked lampoon of My Fair Lady—a one-act, The Wedding Night of Liza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, with off-color lyrics set to the familiar melodies of “The Street Where You Live” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.”
The trouble was that in this cultural environment such a show would be, like Liza Doolittle (as he imagined her for the purposes of this entertainment), unmountable. And for the same reasons: conformity, prudery, feminine cowardice. He felt himself unsuited for the climate of his times. He could only stand outside and laugh at his own class, the educated emulators of British and American mannershis wife, her father the good senator, all those peoplea light scum of gentility floating on a swamp.
And everybody else, all his fellow Filipinos: a lot of superstitious maniacs, miracle seekers, statue-worshippers, stigmata-bleeders, berserk flagellants running on Good Friday through province after province with dripping, self-inflicted wounds …
It is not always easy to tell whether Johnson is being serious or merely unfunny, but I sense no irony here. Rather than disdain Edward’s puerile humor and self-importance, we are to share his condescension toward a society that would never “get” his lampoon—which, by the way, has little chance of being off-color with an “unmountable” lead (another case of Johnson canceling out his own words). We are also to accept that although Edward is now the kind of man who lets puppies starve to death, and is something of a sociopath to boot, his experiences afford him unique insight into Philippine society. In a mad world only the madmen are sane, and all that. This—no better, no worse—is the intellectual and stylistic level of most of the novel. Now imagine reading several hundred pages of such prose.
I chose the above passage over others only because its misrepresentation of Philippine Catholicism is so typical of the book’s greatest flaw. Johnson cannot comprehend the spiritual dimension of people’s lives, a dimension that, as the adage about foxholes reminds us, takes on more and not less importance during a war. In Tree of Smoke, religious faith is just a plot device—along with The Dying Mom I Wasn’t There For and The Dad I Can’t Live Up To—to set off clichéd “arcs” of guilt, self-abuse, and redemption. The reference to Buddhist “bric-a-brac” was no anomaly: “A practitioner had ordered the buildings burned in a superstitious ceremony.” We also get a jungle that “screamed like a mosque,” and a Muslim-style bath that plunges a Catholic priest “into a spiritual nausea … He lay on the bed gasping while the strength boiled out of his blood.” Kathy, a Protestant, is so thrilled by John Calvin’s “terrifying affirmations” of her “foreordained damnation” that she keeps returning to his “spiritual pornography like a dog to its vomit.” That seems far too harsh to be the narrator, but it is impossible to believe that a Christian would think in those terms either. Johnson’s failure to understand Kathy’s faith is such that when he uses it to end the novel on an uplifting note, the reader feels nothing.
Not being religious myself, I do not feel personally insulted by any of this, and lest other tempers flare, let me make clear that free-thinking Skip, the man who wants the truth to wet him, cuts the silliest figure of all. Besides, most of Johnson’s prose—the metaphor of the jungle as screaming mosque, for example—is too imprecise and empty even to give offense. One closes the book only with a renewed sense of the decline of American literary standards. It would be foolish to demand another Tolstoy, but shouldn’t we expect someone writing about the Vietnam War to have more sense and eloquence than the politicians who prosecuted it?
Those two qualities are linked. There can be no deep thought without the proper use of words, as our current president never fails to demonstrate. This is why it is dangerous to hold up bad English as good—and why Philip Roth should know better than to announce that Johnson writes “prose of amazing power and stylishness.” There are people who will take that seriously. Less worrying, because so obviously lunatic, is Jonathan Franzen’s blurb: “The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson’s.” Really? Then God help Jonathan Franzen.
Let’s hear from a man who, for all his intellectual shortcomings, never said anything he didn’t mean. Ezra Pound wrote this in 1931:
The individual cannot think and communicate his thought, the governor and legislator cannot act effectively or frame his laws without words, and the solidity and validity of these words is in the care of the damned and despised litterati …when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten, i.e. becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and of individual thought and order goes to pot.
The “application of word to thing” has been rotting for some time now, and in the very terms described. The social and political consequences are all around us. Literati who contribute to the rot—whether to preserve a writer’s reputation, to stimulate the book market, or simply to go with the flow—have no right to complain about incoherent government. The next time they want to praise a bad book, they should rave about the plot instead.