"Tree of Smoke" is big, convoluted, and meant to be consumed whole in a long read, immersing the reader in the reflections of a fun-house mirror, the military's disintegrating role in Vietnam. There's a flood of imagery, an exhausting descriptive style that one appreciates or soon is overwhelmed by. In its 600 pages are characters that, true to the times, seem to be aimless, or at least helpless in the way of unfolding disaster.
Johnson has some heady company in writing about the watershed event of the 1960s, but at this remove from the events of 1963-1970 (the span of time covered in "Tree of Smoke") Vietnam is less a place of combat than a canvas to spread his cast of characters. Reviewers and many readers were dazzled by the novel's hallucinogenic tone ("whacked-out" was another positive accolade) in which plot is secondary to the effect of the author's spiraling prose.
Like many of its characters, the novel loses its way. The intent is to convey the undeniably chaotic forces at work in this unwinnable war; every man must find reasons for his survival, or work toward his redemption. Some find nothing but the heart of darkness. But survival or redemption requires a moral certainty, and here there is none. The characters only become more obscured in their jungle hell, and the Vietnam war oddly recedes from view as the novel progresses. The war remains central to the action, but as a refraction of the country's moral dilemma. For a novel with so much technical detail, which is considerable, Johnson manages to make Vietnam into a Hollywood abstraction.
Much has been written about the book's echoes of Graham Greene in "The Quiet American," his tale of Vietnam during the French colonial period of the 1950s, and the character of Skip Sands does share some of the optimistic idealism of that novel's Alden Pyle. Both men have their dreams turn dark as their idealism fades. But this is just one aspect of "Tree of Smoke," and the two books describe different eras. Greene's story revealed itself in its British reserve; Johnson's novel is overstuffed with meaning, and spins with centrifugal force, filled with characters we have a hard time knowing, or much caring about.
A big topic, a big book: reviewers and readers have given Johnson a large pass for this, but many of them may mistake the book's sheer weight for seriousness. Through the smoke and confusion we learn little about war or the human condition we don't already know, and of Vietnam even less.
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