Thursday, January 3, 2008

Tree of Smoke

Well! For a little while there, during the holidays, it seemed like I might never finish Denis Johnson's new book. Those first 200 pages require a certain degree of concentration which, in the throes of the holiday season, I was only barely up for. It was the writing that kept me going--the unexpected, and unexpectedly apt, knots of prose; the blackly comic character observations; the small, rich, bizarre bits of aliveness that surfaced in surprising places. The book lacked momentum, though--and while I would have been happy to read another 400 pages like that, my eventual praise might have been grudging.

Johnson is one of my favorite writers, but, although he's written more novels than anything else, his novels have always been the least satisfying (to this reader) of his books. His stories and poems were what really got my motor running--the novels were like abandoned farms out of which beautiful things sometimes implausibly sprung. I wanted to think he had a great one in him, but I wasn't confident that he did. Angels came close, and I liked the slight but shapely The Name of the World. Every time, though, it felt like he was trying, and failing, to break through some big old snowbank. The beginning of this book was good, but it begged the question--is this all going somewhere, or is it just a big mess?

And then the thing just caught fire, and all the paths began to converge, and I read the rest of the book in desperate hundred-page gulps. It's really good. There's even a plot, and it's a fairly simple one, in the end: F. X. Sands, a CIA agent, manages to put into motion, at the outset of the Vietnam War, a grand, brilliant, and ultimately pointless plan, by the force of nothing more than his gargantuan charisma--and ends up ruining a lot of people's lives. The book is populated by his followers and victims, very few of whom come out of the war--or the book--with anything resembling a viable life.

It's the details that are complicated, and this is why the first third of the novel is hard going. The characters are introduced, and their relationship to Sands; none of them know what he's up to, and none of them ever really will. What Johnson gives us is the map of their confusion, and for a time, their confusion is our confusion. But when the war reaches the characters--Sands has commandeered a mountaintop for reasons nobody quite understands, and it is forced to endure the Tet Offensive--we are suddenly reading a page-turner, a thriller. Sands' plan, what there ever was of it, unravels, and the momentum of the novel comes from its unraveling.

Johnson never seemed able to figure out a way to bring the deadpan, sideways motion of his stories into a novel, let alone a long one. The style was there, but the purpose seemed lost. Here, he's made it happen, and the novel is purposeful, elegant, beautifully balanced, yet as idiosyncratic and peculiar as anything he's written. The dialogue reads like an endlessly unfolding series of miracles--it's just masterful lit-verité, and a joy to read. The violence is very real and utterly unadorned. Madness (a common destination for many characters here) is rendered with aching plausibility and deep sadness. Also, the book is often hilarious, sometimes mere moments before it becomes horrifying. It's this great lurching thing that somehow manages to seem balletic and beautiful--a weird, lopsided masterpiece.

Johnson's coming to Cornell for the semester, by the way, and with any luck I'll get the opportunity to interview him for the podcast, when his reading comes around. Stay tuned for that. Meanwhile, read this perfectly flawed piece of work, it's great.

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