(One of these days I've got to get caught up on my book reviews. . .)
This week I started reading Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. I'm only 30 pages in at this point, and considering how little time I'm going to have for reading in December, it may take me awhile to finish it. I thought I'd mention B.R. Myers' review of the book now, though, since many people are finding their way here looking for commentary on it.
The last time I encountered Myers he was mounted on his moral high horse, taking Michael Pollan to task for hunting and eating meat. Mary brought his latest Atlantic review to my attention several days ago and of course I was eager to see just how cranky he'd be this time around.
Shorter Myers for those who can't get behind the firewall: There is nothing admirable to be found in Tree of Smoke. Because Johnson writes about characters who don't have rich inner lives, his novel cannot be ambitious even though other reviewers have claimed it to be so. Johnson can't write authentic action and when he writes realistic dialogue, it's just inane. When he writes characters who don't conform to racial stereotypes he's proving that he doesn't know much about military life or men in general. Also, Johnson doesn't understand "the spiritual dimension of people's lives," but Myers, while admitting to not being religious, does. It isn't Myers' fault that he felt nothing when he read this book except annoyed: Johnson's word choice is always wrong and besides, he writes like Annie Proulx. And those who admire The Tree of Smoke are lying, are contributing to the rot of "word to thing" (he quotes Ezra Pound who Myers says never ever once in his entire life from cradle to grave said a single thing he didn't mean), and "have no right to complain about incoherent government."
As far as I'm concerned (30 pages in), Myers is bat shit. It isn't that his taste is different from mine, it's that he's so willfully determined to be obtuse just so that he can take his swipes.
For example, Myers has a hissy over Johnson's use of the word "bric-a-brac" to describe a wooden Buddha centerpiece. "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," he says.
What Myers leaves out to make his joke is this: an American colonel has been expected at this Vietnamese memorial service, is mentioned in the same paragraph as bric-a-brac, and shows up in the next paragraph, accompanied by an infantryman, a Vietnamese woman employed as a translator, and a projector and screen that are set up in the temple right after the service to show a movie about John F. Kennedy. I'm surprised Myers missed all the references in this section to translations not attempted, communications imprecisely understood, foreigners who must be accomodated despite how one really feels about them, the acceptance of fate. Perhaps bric-a-brac, a word of French origin, was the precise word to get across how inappropriate and out of joint things have become in a country run first by French, now American outsiders--the temple's "small crowd" of gold-painted Buddhas compose a centerpiece topped by a "scintillating battery-run decoration of the type found in GI taverns. . . a disc on which changing bands of light revolved clockwise."
But, as Myers said, he backtracked to look for white men peeping in the window; he didn't go on to the next sentence to encounter bar decorations in the temple.
I much prefer Rodney Welch's take on Tree of Smoke:
It's a Vietnam War novel about the shape-shifting nature of war: the way it defines and obscures, turns truth into lies, real into surreal and people into animals. It is complex and at times may tax a reader's ability to hold it all together, but it's also deeply artistic, brilliantly structured, and exhaustively ambitious. It's also about how hard it is to write a fresh novel about a subject that has been thoroughly ransacked; it's Johnson's entry in the Great American Novel game, and it seems bent on eating everything that came before it.