Tree of Smoke

treeofsmoke.jpg“Dietrich Fest of Department Five of West Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst boarded a night flight at the National Airport near Washington, DC, and for eighteen hours had nothing to do but read and nap and nothing to think about other than his father’s medical crises. Seven, eight months since the old man had seen the outside of a hospital. Gallbladder; liver; heart; a series of small strokes; hemorrhaging in the bowels with massive blood loss and transfusions; a feeding tube in his stomach; latest of all pneumonia. The old man refused to die. But he would. Perhaps already. Perhaps earlier while I dozed with a sagging head. Perhaps now while I look at a stupid mystery book. “Claude,” the old man had called him when he’d visited in October – wires and tubes exiting from him everywhere, blue eyes shining into space. “Look, it’s Claude,” he’d told the urine-smelling, otherwise empty room, and Fest had said, “No, it’s Dirk,” and his father’s eyes had closed.” (p.398)

“Tree of Smoke”, by Denis Johnson, is a book which deserves more space than I am about to give it here. Having recently finished it, however, I at least want to give it a mention. The above extended quote is symptomatic both of the book’s greatness, and of its difficulty (and resultant negative reviews by some critics). What’s it about? It’s about Vietnam. It’s about covert operations. It’s about the role of intelligence and myth, stories and false stories, and the way channels of intelligence go up the chain of command, and then come back down again as policy, and how that policy can be influenced if the right sort of information goes up in the first place. The “right sort of information” is always that which resonates with the dominant myth/delusion of the times we find ourselves in.

“Tree of Smoke” is a bit like Syrania, where everything is relative and you’re not sure who to trust or who is in charge. It’s like Don DeLillo teaming up with Ernest Hemingway. Despite its difficulty, it would be easy to teach: there are numerous markers throughout the book which clue the reader in, such as here, early on, in a series of quotes which underlie the theme of illusions, ideals, and lies:

_ Sooner or later the mind grasps at a thought and follows it into the labyrinth, one thought branching into another. Then the labyrinth caves in on itself and you find yourself outside. You were never inside – it was a dream. p. 32

The colonel said, “We’ve got to keep hold of our ideals while steering them through the maze.” p. 60

“Oh, well,” Sands said, thinking that when passion stirred Major Eddie’s heart, he tended to speak in a kind of poetry – you wouldn’t do it justice to call it lying. p.58

“Eddie Aguinaldo,” the colonel said, “is the Filipino equivalent of a goddamn liar. Any other questions?” p. 59

Mazes, labyrinths, stories, misunderstandings, and deception form the backbone of the book. What troubles many readers is the interior nature of the narrative, and the apparent formlessness of the plot line. There is no consistent protagonist, and third person blends into first person narration quite seamlessly, as in the above extended quote where the hired assassin Dietrich Fest moves from observed (third person) to observing (first person). Dietrich Fest appears here, on p. 398, apparently for the first time, but in fact the reader is eventually able to see that he is the unnamed assassin from earlier in the book, this time seen from a different angle. In fact, not even Dietrich’s father recognizes him, mistaking him for his war hero brother, Claude, and further underlining the ways we fail to recognize those closest to us.

Johnson’s ability to seamlessly shift his point of view can be confusing at first, but the technique is effective in dispelling the notion that there IS an objective story line in war, or in life. It’s a mess. It’s confusing. But it’s an amazing read, well worth the effort. The descriptions of place are rich with immediacy, and the dialog is flawless, but the main appeal of the book is its attempt to chronicle “the line between disinformation and delusion.” And, not to overstate the bloody obvious, but that line has been pretty much obliterated in the last eight years.

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