Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Unholy Smoke

Apologies for the absence. Have been busy with a lot of work, with a little travel, with re-reading Martin Amis (Money, The Information, Experience) and with reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Meanwhile, here's a review that appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

TREE OF SMOKE Denis Johnson

The award for the novel with the most apt title ought to go to Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. This much-praised novel branches off in all directions, and time and again, you’re struck by the narrative’s opacity.

Johnson’s subject is America’s war in Vietnam, following in the footsteps of authors such as Norman Mailer and Robert Stone. He also references the work of others who’ve composed narratives dealing with Westerners in the Far East, notably Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad.

Tree of Smoke, however, is quite different from its forbears. Johnson is primarily interested in mood and resonance, but the plot, such as it is, deals with the exploits of William “Skip” Sands, a CIA operative in Vietnam, his uncle, Colonel Sands, as well as a vertiginous cast comprising layabouts, agents, double agents, soldiers and civilians. Skip leaves the US to engage in psychological operations against the VietCong, in territory that’s mentally and geographically murky.

Johnson traces his activities from 1963 to 1970, with a concluding leap forward to 1983, and episode follows episode in quick succession with large slabs of well-crafted dialogue. Overall, the novel is remarkable for its surreal, sometimes hallucinatory tone. As one of the characters says: “Psy Ops is all about unusual thinking, man. We want ideas blown up right to where they’re gonna pop. We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream”.

Johnson’s tough-minded prose is shot through with strains of lyricism, but on occasion, lapses into the portentous. However, he’s remarkably specific about the landscape, clothes, food and interiors of his characters, giving the novel its realistic heft.

Henry James famously deplored 19th century novels for being “loose, baggy monsters”. Despite its strengths, this is the term that comes to mind after finishing Tree of Smoke. At more than 600 pages, it’s not for the faint of heart or limp of wrist.