Thoughts: Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

Well, I was complaining that The Return wasn’t immersive enough as historical fiction, so Johnson came along to smoosh my face into the oppressive tropical climate of Vietnam.

Before we begin – this is a book about the Vietnam War, and as such contains the sort of violence, racist and sexist language and attitudes (and those specific violences) you’d expect. If that’s not your bag, then you can happily stay away from this one.

I…liked it though. Is that the right word? I read it avidly and chewed it over.

Johnson comes at the war (about which I know probably not as much as I should) from a variety of angles – the intelligence officer at odds with the American military machine, the brothers, fuck-up and fucked-up, on the ground, the Vietnamese are-they-aren’t-they-working-with-the-Americans couple, the Vietcong double agent, the Canadian missionary’s widow and nurse in her own right doing what she can to clean up the mess, others who show up for a scene or two… And swimming through all these threads coming in and out of focus through the years, the Colonel, who may or may not be puppetmastering some grand psyop throughout.

There’s a lot going on, and Johnson doesn’t rush through it. He takes the reader through vivid landscapes and settings, and equally vivid introspections and inner evolutions, playing with myth and legend and religion and individual experiences more than the wider politics of the war. The religious elements, specifically those of the Westerners who were priests, missionaries, or just having spiritual crises in general, almost reminded me in some way of Endo Shusaku’s Silence, and the futility of trying to plant that kind of Christianity in an East Asian country without knowing what the hell you’re doing. There’s a kind of self-inflicted madness there.

Johnson’s dialogue is particularly solid, the voices distinctive (and so many characters!) and the threads of conversations, people talking past each other and messing with each other and language barriers regularly getting in the way. He has a good ear for non-native English cadences; Vietnamese, French, German, Chinese. Weirdly he has a terrible ear for British dialogue though? There are specifically British (he’s American, he means English, we all know it, but he says British) characters who use very American constructions in a way that is small but jars quite surprisingly, and this isn’t just me being difficult, I promise.

Some of the character threads don’t seem to come to neat conclusions – I certainly couldn’t tell when reading ‘Oh, that’s the last we’ll see of this character’ – but it didn’t bother me at the time, so make of that what you will. Maybe I’m just a sloppy reader. Or maybe some things just don’t have neat ends.

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