Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

This 2007 work is a difficult novel to digest. I was drawn to it because it is about the Vietnam War and has received extensive praise. But I find that it is not my kind of novel. It is not about people, but about experiences. And while these are brilliantly described experiences, they are disconnected. For one thing, we jump back and forth between the experiences of the two male characters. For another, we jump ahead continually in time.

The first character is Skip Sands, part of a nebulous CIA operation and nephew of the legendary Colonel Sands, an Edward Lansdale type of character. The second is James Houston, an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and his brother Bill. In both these relationships, Skip and James admire their family counterparts and earn our sympathy and identification, but both also end up on the wrong side of the law. This novel is about why that happens, but their sad fates also frustrate the reader’s need to identify with these characters.

In other words, the message of this novel is the harm that this war did to young men, and by implication to society at large. Not simply because of the reason the U.S. forces were in Vietnam, but because of their actions once there. And in this novel, these actions are quite disorganized. Which has resulted, for me, in a disorganized novel. I ended up reading a novel about those actions rather than a novel about the evolution of these characters. That is, both Skip and James are completely different people at the end of this novel, and it is not clear how or why they changed. Yes, the war, in general, caused it, but the reader does not experience the internal change in each one, only the disorganized experiences that seem to have prompted it.

Moreover, those experiences were, for me, too unpleasant, as well as too disconnected, to draw me into this novel. Yes, the author is showing that they were unpleasant in order to make his point. But they reflect too much for me the modern novelists’ detachment from his characters—resorting to a brilliant objectivity that, for me, inserts a barrier between myself and the characters I am reading about. And I acknowledge that for some this is a positive result. They admire such objectivity. But I wonder if it is because they do not approach the reality they describe with social, spiritual, or moral standards.

B. R. Myers writes a devastating review in The Atlantic, which makes me more comfortable in my reaction, but that review concentrates on Johnson’s writing style more than on its content. Whereas, I was more impressed by the vividness of the style that so often put me in the actual scene. I sensed that the specifics meant that Johnson himself had been to Vietnam and witnessed/experienced that life and that landscape. Which seems to say that, for me, the vividness of the style overwhelmed Myers’ critique of the felicities of style.

Geoff Dyer in The Guardian also sums up this novel: “Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”

That’s me, caught up in each adventure, that is, until it seemed to go nowhere. Thus, the title, Tree of Smoke, the name of a CIA project, is never explored. And the project is as amorphous as the rest of these disconnected events. Speaking of disconnections, the novel ends with Kathy, a nurse with whom Skip has a brief affair—she appears sporadically, unlinked to other events, throughout the novel—giving a speaking engagement in St. Paul years later. And it is she who expresses the novel’s final line: “All will be saved. All will be saved.” Huh? That upbeat seems to come from nowhere.

Perhaps my fascination with the vivid events of this novel, combined with a struggle to get through it, is best captured by David Ignatius in The Washington Post: “This novel makes large demands on the reader: to submit to its length, to its disorienting language and structure, to the elusive and shattering experience of its characters, and finally to its sheer ambition to be definitive, an encompassing novel for the Vietnam generation. It is a presumptuous book, in other words, and you may resist for the first several hundred pages. But it will grab you eventually, and gets inside your head like the war it is describing — mystifying, horrifying, mesmerizing.”

Yes, this novel jumps around too much for me. From Bill to Skip, from Bill to James, from Skip to the colonel’s lieutenants, and then to Kathy. Also, from year to year, and then to a decade later. All is disconnected. How does Skip get blamed for the colonel’s failed plans? Why does he then turn criminal? Why does James also turn criminal after he comes home to his brother? Why does Kathy lose her faith in God but not in man? I suggest the Vietnam War is too simple an explanation for all this. Especially for a novel that does not get inside its characters.

Johnson’s favorite milieu appears to be the underside of life, whether in the military or back home. And Vietnam offers a fine opportunity to enter that world, both the American world of an ineffectual CIA or military mission and the Vietnam world’s interchangeable allegiances. One should note that there is no military action here for a war novel, no actual spy missions for its espionage atmosphere, only talk and planning and new talk and new planning, a year later, to new off-screen developments. There are also long journeys through nature, but no climactic revelations, no missions accomplished. There are only mysterious assassins, mysterious loners, and the mysterious Vietnamese culture.

Matterhorn remains my favorite novel about the Vietnam War. We follow our soldiers actually fighting. They have a mission. And they succeed or they fail. And react accordingly. (January, 2017)

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

This 1990 work deserves its reputation. Here are the experiences of civilian soldiers during a few months in Vietnam, as they discover the fragility of life and the humanity of their fellow soldiers. The author identifies one soldier as himself, and dedicates this book to the soldiers in these stories, although he also acknowledges some of the stories he tells have been fabricated.

This has been called a book of short stories, but it is, in effect, a novel. Because it is about the same platoon of soldiers who appear in each tale, one or more featured in one, other soldiers in another. A few of the tales leap ahead, and reveal the impact of Vietnam on a soldier’s future, particularly the soldier writing as a 43-year-old author.

Some of the stories are quite brief, not full stories, rather quick anecdotes that illustrate a particular aspect of the war. The best story by far is the title story. It is a tour de force which lists all the items a soldier carried into battle in Vietnam. Some items varied according to his role and the mission. Other items included his food, insect spray, and toilet paper, and all items included a precise listing of what each item weighed. But not only material items. Soldiers also carried the weight of other burdens, such as their fears, dreams, hungers, pain, and so on.

There are also memorable stories about death that expand into multiple stories. One concerns a Vietcong soldier killed on a jungle trail just because he was there, and the guilt one American soldier carries even when his buddies later try to talk him out of it. Another concerns the responsibility for an American Indian, Kiowa, being buried alive in sea of mud. His sad fate depends on a series of ignorant decisions and the guilty conscience of those who could not save him.

A few stories stand alone, such as the narrator’s (O’Brien’s?) abortive attempt to flee the draft. He does not because he is embarrassed to be seen as a coward. Still others are enhanced when the narrator recalls events from years later and evaluates their effect on him both then and now—when he has a family and is a writer (as O’Brien). The collection concludes with a kind of hymn to death, contrasting that of a girl, when she and the narrator were nine, to the deaths that he as a soldier witnessed in Vietnam, as well as other subsequent deaths when soldiers returned to civilian life. Indeed, the entire book reflects through these stories the dream of bringing the dead back to life.

O’Brien blends here the brutality and pain of warfare and the haphazardness of death; the use of humor, of denial, of lies and exaggeration in order to cope; the haunting memories and the failure of memory. It is also about both irony and sentimentality; about the blurring of fiction and fact; about the tension between harried soldiers and their love for one another; and about the shifting values that arise from experience. A review in the Richmond Dispatch sums up this work: It is “about a lost innocence that might be recaptured through the memories of stories….O’Brien tells us these stories because he must….this is the book about surviving.”

This is also a unique book. A novel comprised of short stories, yes. But also a novel about memory, about guilt, and an uncertain reality. A novel about reaction more than about its violence. A novel about the imagination prompted by reality. A novel about small incidents in the universe of war. A novel that sees the truth of war inside men’s minds, in the courage, the fear, that it creates, rather than in the suffering bodies.

O’Brien said in an interview that he did not write about the Vietnamese people because he did not know any. He did not write about battle because he did not experience any. He experienced “an aimlessness, not just in the physical sense but beyond that in the moral and ethical sense.” And that is why he wrote the kind of book he did. It is, he said, “a writer’s book on the effects of time on the imagination. It is definitely an anti-war book. I hated the war from the beginning.” He says it is a book “about man’s yearning for peace.”

He has certainly met that objective. This is about American civilians unprepared to fight a war in a strange land, not understanding the reason they are there, and trying to cope with the unreality around them. And in one person’s memory of that experience it captures the experience of all. But it is also about the elusiveness of experience and the elusiveness of memory. As Robert R. Harris wrote in his Times review, “[O’Brien] makes sense of the unreality of the war—makes sense of why he has distorted that reality even further in his fiction—by turning back to explore the workings of the imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction writer.”

I have read, and liked, two of the author’s earlier works, Caccioto and Lake of the Woods (both good, the former better). O’Brien’s Vietnam service obviously had a great impact on his life, and literature has benefitted from that experience. The author has graduated from fantasy to magic in those earlier works to playing with memory in this book. Which gives this work a more subtle approach, and also a more human approach. There are fewer fireworks and more exploring within. This work is also simpler on the surface, with more complex inner lives. The result is a more mature work, even if a shorter one.

I am drawn toward more of O’Brien, but primarily if he further explores his Vietnam experience. I would note, however, that for a single work of fiction on the Vietnam war, I still regard Matterhorn as the peak achievement. For it truly captures what the experience was like, as it follows a single company across the Vietnamese terrain and portrays a series of natural and violent confrontations with the enemy. (February, 2016)