SURVIVOR: let the great world spin (colum mccann)*
CHALLENGER: tree of smoke (denis johnson)

down the street from the colony

tree of smoke (summary here) begins with a scene about a monkey. literally it begins with jfk's assassination, but for most intents and purposes: monkey. how you feel about this scene is, i think, a fairly decent predictor of how you'll feel about denis johnson's whole novel (and perhaps about vietnam, but i'm getting ahead of myself). here's a bit of it which doesn't give too much away:
"Jesus Christ!" [Seaman Houston] shouted at the monkey, as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition. He thought his head would explode, if the forenoon kept burning into the jungle all around him and the gulls kept screaming and the monkey kept regarding its surroundings carefully, moving its head and black eyes from side to side like someone following the progress of some kind of conversation, some kind of debate, some kind of struggle that the jungle--the morning--the moment--was having with itself.
animal innocence is riveting, almost lurid, and it's tricky: two hundred pages later, this sort of passage would grind the whole story to a halt. it works here - for me, at least - as a bit of poem-logic to introduce us to johnson's vietnam. (it's quite like johnson's actual poetry, in fact, and reminds me of one of his sonnets.**) it enraged the atlantic's b.r. meyers, who called foul on its proximity to the jfk mention; it enchanted paste magazine's christine thomas, who compared the book to "the poetic sestina."*** i fall somewhere in the middle with jim lewis, randomly defensive in the new york times ("[I]t’s not a perfect book; but then, a perfect book would be perfectly safe, and I don’t have time for that."), which i feel strange saying, given how i began to suspect almost immediately that tree of smoke would be the book to end colum mccann's sensitive irish reign of THUNDERTOME terror.

how can an american with only moderate control of his adjectives (tree of smoke is as messy as johnson's most recent novel, nobody move, is awesomely businesslike) imagine vietnam and best a devastatingly musical foreigner recovering from 9/11? at the risk of sounding like jim lewis, i think the messiness does help: tree of smoke is what americans of my generation expect to hear about that war, and the format in which we expect to hear about it (a steaming bowl of chest-thumping**** tossed with helpless letters from home***** and snapshots of despair******). tree of smoke is seven hundred and two pages long, and johnson takes his sweet time getting to things that matter: while a writer like mccann fills his pages with immediately accessible, pleasurable set pieces, johnson aims to exhaust you before he makes his point. reading tree of smoke is an act of endurance, and readers speak of it the way they speak of david foster wallace's infinite jest ("just hang in there for a few hundred pages and it'll take hold."). one could argue that it's an irresponsible way to structure a book - why not ask me to take a few laps around the block instead of flinging less than meaningful sentences at me? - but the cumulative effect of the little psychic injuries he folds in when you think you're just reading about traffic in saigon is actually quite staggering. it's an effective way of communicating that war's toxicity to readers whose only adult points of reference are our non-conscripted engagements in afghanistan and iraq: vietnam poisoned the groundwater for the young westerners it engaged (to say nothing of the vietnamese).

one can't love tree of smoke as one can love let the great world spin, i think; while johnson gives us an intimate sense of why each of his characters fall sick, they end up so very lost that it's hard to care that they'll never be well. can desensitization actually be painful? as johnson notes in another poem,
I'm telling you it's cold inside the body that is not the body,
lonesome behind the face
that is certainly not the face
of the person one meant to become.

VICTOR: tree of smoke. mccann deepened my understanding of new york city, but johnson rewrote what i know of vietnam.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 do you have an ice-cream-tooth sensitivity to scenes with animals as well? if so, which books, which scenes?

02 do you believe that voltaire actually said "ice-cream is exquisite - what a pity it isn't illegal," as various quote-aggregating sites claim he did?

03 what do you think of denis johnson's sonnet?

04 sweeping generalization time: are poet-novelists a confluence of fine things, like jalapeno poppers, or the worst of two worlds, like musical theater?

05 what's the most affecting war novel you've read?

06 and the last really, really long, act-of-endurance novel you read? was it worth the effort?

*previous battle here.

**i'm not actually praising that sonnet, mind you. we're still eyeing each other warily.

***as opposed to, say, the spaghetti western sestina ("The way Henry Fonda dies / is fabulous.")

****"The moment was strong and peaceful. The air had ringing depth. Every last particle of bullshit had been incinerated."

*****"I cried so hard the tears fell on my hands, right down on my hands."

******"Certain persons positively and absolutely chosen to salvation, others as absolutely appointed to destruction...Lying there in the stink of her life with her hair still wet from rain."


Uncle paul said...

My guess is that the quote sites garbled a famous line from Stendhal's Italian Chronicles: "It was in Italy and in the seventeenth century that a Princess said, as she sipped an ice with keen enjoyment on the evening of a hot day: 'What a pity, this is not a sin!'"

I think the world of Johnson as a stylist, and the thing I remember most about the monkey scene is a virtuoso placement of "enthusiastically" - I think suggesting the archaic sense, a religious enthusiast? The trailing-off chronology at the end didn't do as much for me - I wondered if it just uncertain about what the do with the aftermath of history. How did you read it?

kidchamp said...

the hop to the eighties was sort of weird, though i'm not sure how johnson could have gotten to his coda without another five hundred even more punishing pages (though that would be a hell of a novel for someone to tackle). we needed to hear from kathy again, and the detached disappointment she remembers feeling when her plane went down is one of the book's most vivid emotions, i think (the scene in which she goes to the primate researchers to beg for supplies is pretty great, too), but i sort of still don't know what to do with skip. i was expecting something else for him and what i thought he represented. 

rachel (heart of light) said...

ohmygod I can't believe McCann was ousted. Insane.

Also, can I just say I'm impressed that you tackle difficult reading during the summer? I just can't face endurance reads during these months. Somehow it's more palatable in winter, when everything is gloomy and untempting and you can sustain yourself with hot drinks.

jacob said...

04 i don't know about poet-novelists, but i do endorse poet-essayists, like sarah manguso.

05 i found sections of the tin drum very affecting, but tobias wolff's in pharaoh's army, though non-fiction, has always stuck with me for its description of the fear in being a relatively incompetent officer in charge of the safety of (generally more competent) subordinates during vietnam.

06 really, really long? probably don quixote. and it was really, really worth it.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

02: Voltaire doesn’t strike me as the type of dude to get all worked up over milk and sugar.  I much prefer his apothegm, often quoted by Norman Mailer, “Once a philosopher; twice a pervert.”
03: I do like ice cubes fall[ing] against her teeth and exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion.  And I guess I also like the large oven impersonating night.  The less said about kazoos and erotic hallucinations and electric dusk though, the better.
04: (Aww, does musical theater deserve this characterization REALLY?)  Just don’t let a lousy writer use one to unjustly excuse the other.
05: Catch-22 is the awful truth.  Bierce’s Civil War Stories and Josef Lada’s illustrations for The Good Soldier Svejk also help.

kidchamp said...

it was rough going, rachel; i spent most of a month on it, all told (i didn't bother trying to read it on the subway, so i ended up tackling it before bed. hi, weird dreams!). i was really excited about finishing up so that i could move on to number9dream, which turned out to be perrrrrrrrfect for the summer (more on that soon). 

@jacob: would that be a weird first wolff? i mean, i've read the odd short story, but that's it. i might feel strongly about not starting with this boy's life.

@mdf: i hate a lot of things jokingly, but alas, i'm dead serious there: i really hate musicals. hedwig, rocky, and, like, dancer in the dark are the exceptions that prove the rule. 

jacob said...

@kidchamp - i wouldn't see it as weird. not the obvious place to start reading wolff, but i don't recall many narrative connections between the two memoirs that would necessarily argue for reading this boy's life first.

LPC said...

Really, really long, Dickens. Love him. But I have lost my stomach for demanding reads. At least ones with lots of words - I can do the spartan sort which make demands on your emotions but not your language processing capacities. I bought a DFW short fiction, because you said to, but I dip my toe in and take it back out again.

Just found Mary Gaitskill. Have you read her stuff?

kidchamp said...

@lpc: at first i was going to say "yes, i loved north and south!" - but that's elizabeth gaskell (though that is indeed an entertaining book, and i recommend it). no, gaitskill's new to me; what would you recommend? persist with the DFW, o, persist!

LPC said...

I just read a book of short stories called Bad Behavior. Isn't that a great title? I usually hate short stories but these I loved. They're kind of old. Flatly and mattely perverse. OK. OK. I will persist with DFW. For you and only for you.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

0?: In the Victor announcement you talk about ToS’s merit in kind of an occult way (albeit satisfyingly).  Is it crass to wonder after expository riddles like what was the original understanding of Vietnam ToS revised and where did it come from?  (In the event such inquiries are indeed crass, please disregard them like so much feverish kazoo music.)  Follow-up curiosity: Are the 702 pages of ToS as devastating as the 1125 words in DFW’s Incarnations of Burned Children?

kidchamp said...

not at all crass, MDF; i'd say my initial understanding of vietnam was equal parts didion (...bethlehem, not democracy), francis ford coppola, the last five minutes of rushmore, and an imperfect year of AP u.s. history. i think you're too kind to say i spoke satisfyingly of this one; i do know that it won, but the why is awfully eely.

on the follow-up: nope. LMO+DFW.

on feverish kazoo music, did you hear that gary shteyngart sold his apartment? d'you think the fact that it was sort of the setting for ("lenny hearts eunice" and) super sad true love story made a difference?

Katherine Cortes said...

I'm fearful that if I just can't agree with you on DFW, we're too far apart to make good use of each other's book recs generally. I've tried IJ at least 2x by 200 pages and am bored silly each time. Can't make much of the shorter stuff, either - to me the saddest part of artistic depression is how dull it is.

Nevertheless: 06: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel - I read the hell out of it in Scotland, staying up until the wee hours on my last night with an old high school friend & her husband & baby out on the Isle of Mull, so that I could hand it off to her (new English-language fiction can be $$$ in Berlin, where she lives) but then she couldn't carry it with all the baby gear anyway. It was great though.

Amanda said...

01 Only pigs. And spiders.
02 God, I hope not.
04 Poet-novelists make me tired (Jalepeno Poppers, the Musical!)
05 I was going to say the Butter Battle Book, but it's def. Horton Hatches the Egg
06 Moby-Dick. Oh, yes.