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Nonsense, Fiction, and Miscellaneous Things

Denis Johnson, 'Tree of Smoke'
     So, Col. Francis X. Sands works for the CIA  and he's established a landing zone (LZ) in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. By command, the LZ is not to be called a base.  I suppose that there could be hundreds of reasons for such a requirement.  In this instance, the reason is that the 'LZ' is not exactly authorized by the CIA or the Army or any other official govt. entity.  In other words, it's sort of a renegade operation.  If it sounds similar to Francis Ford Coppola's movie Apocalypse Now - which relates to Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness - it's because it is similar; But instead of examining  man's depravity it explores man's indefatigability.
     The youngest character in Denis Johnson's  Tree of Smoke is named Burris. The surname Burris means 'fortified place' or 'stronghold'.  meaning-of-names.com  It relates I believe to an indefatigableness of innocence. The stronghold is part indefatigableness and part innocence.  Burris, young and innocent yet by name a 'stronghold', is the talisman of this theme. And the theme is constant throughout the book.
     Most of the characters are well-educated and driven to effect an admirable good.  But their idealism is often destructed by facts and experiential realities yet they continue on. They may breakdown, or claim not to care, but they don't throw in the towel.

"Soon the infant's heart stopped.  She sent the family out . . . Out in the night firecrackers banged for Tet, and the hands of celebrants waved gunpowder sparklers.  She fell asleep."1 . . . "Next she was called to a nearby village struck by incendiaries,"2 . . . She stayed in the ville until morning and then headed on her bicycle for the Biomedical Centre."3

     Throughout this novel, the characters don't withdraw from the horrors; their responsibilities - as per whichever organization they're working for - won't allow it.  This 'stick-to-it-ive-ness' seems rooted in the stronghold of their innocence. Unaware on the one hand, unable to deny on the other hand, they falter but can't give in.  It's not even a conscious determination, it's an indefatigableness of spirit held up by an innocence they themselves wouldn't believe they had if you informed them of it.
     Other characters, mostly depicted as soldiers, are not as well educated so their choices seem more limited.  Young teenagers motivated by a mix of necessity or wonderment join the service for a paycheck or adventure.  They face trying circumstances during the war.  Frequently, they have easy sex with local Vietnamese woman or have a drunkenly good time in a, usually, unmannerly, bawdy way. But eventually, the terrors of war come and they are effected.  The characters suffer.  Driven by revenge and rage they make others suffer as well.  They go AWOL, they cut off the ears of corpses, etc.   But the debasement is, in the author's opinion - which I agree with, less a depravity of character and more of a survivalist necessity.  In other words, the wartime suffering necessitates a response  by them as a means of continuing.  They need some way to regain their footing and then from there they can regain some manner of self-respect.  Simply put they need an LZ; A landing zone.   This landing zone is not to be referred to as a base with it's alternate definition of 'base, vulgar acts'.  Although, in this metaphor, the debasement is a recognized part of the landing zone, this baseness flows not from an essential abomination of character but rather from an abomination of situation;  Thus the metaphorical version of 'landing zone' (LZ).  It's not unlike a sanctuary for a kind of response to terror.  The debasement is understood not to be quite the character fault others might regard it.
     The most bothersome part of the novel was that it seemed as if a lot of scenes included a kind of schmaltzy philosophizing:

"Everything is not merely superstitious with these people.  Some things are already verified."4

"History might forgive us for what's going on around here. But that man never will. He'd better not."5

I wondered, with all this aphorismic dialogue, how any of the characters managed to attend to the task at hand.  But it reminded me of a scene from Ernest Hemingway's  The Sun Also Rises:

Jake Barnes is referring to Robert Cohen's reading of a novel:
"For a man to take it at thirty-four as a guide-book to what life holds is about as safe as it would be for a man of about the same age to enter Wall Street direct from a french convent."6

     In other words, fictional books shouldn't be read as if they were a factual recounting of events rather than authorial subjectivity. The book is heavy with themes both large and small, and the characters frequent aphorisms and meditations are as necessary to the story as fuel is as necessary to propulsion.  With that in mind, I took the characters aphorismic dialogue as part of the author's chosen aesthetic with which the pensiveness of these characters would not have been obvious had they simply dealt with the details of the task at hand.  The philosophizing then seemed a necessary aspect; It put the book's tone in sync with it's themes.
     Johnson's style seems sort of peculiar rather than particular.  But I like it.  I was drawn into the descriptions of the settings such that I could say I had a sense of being there in the scenes rather than being in a chair reading a book.

"The path was only a figment now in Saliling's mind.  Carignan blundered after, kept upright by the fear that if he went down he'd be lost in the vegetation.  His clothes were sopped even his pockets were full of his sweat.  The path widened again and they came to a path overlooking the world."7

     The body of the novel is chaotic with events and characters and can be difficult to follow.  A kind of fog or scatterbrained-ness settled in on me for much of the bulk of the book but this cleared up once the war itself was over.  The book then jumps to 1983 in a resolving and becomes less chaotic, more serene, though no less thematic. It's a stylisticaly satisfying way to end such a chaos of emotions brought about by the good intentions, failures, and sufferings of the characters.
     I don't think this review reveals the complexity of Johnson's book nor do I think I could write a review which would capture the complexity, at least not without quoting, extensively, the book.  The book can seem to falter at times but, given Mr Johnson's obvious sincerity and attention to the humanity of these fictional characters and his willingness to tackle some pretty complex ideas, the resultant occasional faltering is easily accepted and results in no less an appreciation for his attempts and achievements.  I wish more writer's who, though as bothered as Denis Johnson by aspects of life, were also as intensely sincere of purpose as is Mr. Johnson.

1Tree of Smoke,  ©Denis Johnson, 2007, Picador®,  Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, pg. 329
2Ibid, pg.330
3Ibid, pg.330
4Ibid, pg. 263
Ibid, pg. 340
6 The Sun Also Rises , Ernest Hemingway Scribner, 2006, pg. 17
Tree of Smoke,  ©Denis Johnson, 2007, Picador®,  Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, pg. 84
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