Unending puzzles and pillories and the futility of salvation in Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke

To begin talking about Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson’s most famous novel to date, one needs clarity of thought more than things to say, an incisive judgment more than an affluence of words, earned reflections more than noted quotations.

700 pages of blood (in paperback)

If I try to be terse here, I see little difficulty. To do so in talking about Tree of Smoke would be as easy as stating that it is yet another “postmodern” work stuffed with multiple characters caught in several, not necessarily connected subplots, inviting the seeming convenience of that tag which eases the readers of the pressure of getting something out of the work after they read it. On the other hand, in an attempt to be straightforwardly encompassing, one can say that this novel about Vietnam War, more than probing the political factors that surround the war and taking a position with regard to it, talks about the disillusionment and lost of spirit experienced by the people during that infamous war and in the end, subtly suggests heading on after all offenses have been made and all settlements have been arranged.

There are two major subplots here: first, that of Skip Sands and his prominent uncle Colonel Francis Sands and their psychological operations during the war and the Houston Brothers, Bill and James, and how they spent separate military services in the war. There is no task to be designated as a tall one here, for fiction to take a huge historical juncture such as the Vietnam War as its topic, its setting, and its inspiration simultaneously; the issue is less of tasks but, as always, creativity. Perhaps no one should expect Johnson’s novel to attempt to limn the war immaculately. While “factual” documentaries which more vocally claim to attempt and do just this can be imputed with several biases and temporal and spatial differences that naturally already distort the events as they happened, fiction can do better by not trumpeting such claims to truth and focus instead on arguably a more challenging and engaging task: rewrite a past event and render it available to the future generations either merely for their textual consumption or the eventual change in their views about themselves and the world.

To begin, there are little, interesting aspects of the novel which struck me personally as a reader. Being a Filipino, I was both delighted and slightly surprised to see Filipino “elements” in the novel. For one, the opening scene of the novel was in the Philippines and many more to come. There were also Filipino characters; most significant of them is General Eddie Aguinaldo. The scenes in the Philippines also paved the way for particular customs and beliefs in the country to be included, the belief on “aswang” being the most remarkable in the novel. In one scene, General Aguinaldo was talking about seeing “a throng outside the market, beating an old woman and crying, “Aswang! Aswang!” which prompted the German who was with him and Skip to utter, “These people are like demented children” (48). Definitely, Johnson did not become a mere storyteller here, hell no one can limit the act of telling a story to be just such an act. Even in these fragments of Filipino lifestyle and culture which Johnson’s characters remark about, Johnson is already lending an image of this culture to his readers. In the case of Vietnam and Malaysia as well, two other South East Asian countries where scenes in the novel took place, Johnson is apparently attributing a recurring idea: the quest of miracles, the seemingly petty circus-like passing of every day, and implicitly, the Third World mentality that motivates such hullabaloo an American can only ruminate shallowly about or tacitly ridicule.

Lastly on this “Filipino-ness” in Tree of Smoke, it just made me joyous to see words and phrases like “maraming salamat po,” “Tamis Anghang Banana Catsup” and “posporo” written in this novel. These words are undeniably part and parcel of Filipino culture  and seeing them in the novel made me think of the kind of immersion or research Johnson did while working on this novel.

This is just one of the many things about the novel that made it grip me like there should be no going, this among other things: James Houston’s happy nights at the Purple Bar, Kathy and Skip’s bridled humanizing affair in the midst of all disheartening events in Vietnam, Bill Houston’s eventual resignation to meaning and redoing what John Updike’s Sammy did in A&P (“In his heart – as with high school – he’d quit this job on the first day but saw nowhere else to go” (313)). But on top of it all is the classic problem of reality and appearances and how this gets even more complex and traumatizing in a situation like the Vietnam War. The North and South are bickering with their armors and guns; the Socialist forces are implicated and the US joined in the fray; within every armed force, there were double agents complicating issues of trust and faith to supposed comrades and the entire cause of the battle; in the end, everyone and everything seemed to be fated to die and die unremarkably, all humans and ideals buried deep down the quagmire of Vietnam and all human weaknesses it covers – no escaping such ordain, no salvation to hope for. And in the words of the Colonel, “in the end we’re dirt. Let’s face it our whole civilization is a layer of sediment” (27).

If you have think of words, put them here: On Vietnam War

For the last century that has been largely marked by a number of wars (international and civil) and which eventually became the key junctions in that century, Vietnam War is arguably the biggest of all. Not so much for impact since the countries involved here are definitely less than in the case of the two World Wars, but for its outcome – the loss of steadying global power of America. I myself obviously was not there and it was only through history textbooks, documentaries and fictional works where I can transport myself to the skin and heart of the war. But being informed of the present socio-economic arrangements around the world, it is intriguing to look back at Vietnam War and how the entire thing happened; most notably, how America suffered from the defeat, how did the North Vietnam forces outhustled and outsmarted their Southern counterparts and their American friends. Given America’s continual intervention and latent occupation of still several countries in the world today, it appeals to my curiosity how they faced a shameful defeat in Vietnam and what did their antagonists did to achieve the feat.

Interestingly, I also had the vaguest of ideas about Vietnam War and this was not something imposed by my pressing thoughts on the storied-ness of things and the perpetual persistence against the totality of experience. Perhaps my history lessons of the past should be damned but I was not afforded a much earlier chance to vicariously experience and reflect on the Vietnam War. And with Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, the themes were rather not unexpected: disillusionment, the crumbling down of appearances previously regarded as reality, and the ensuing test of faith and pining for higher orders, like truth, like salvation.

At the heart of this novel are deception operations, double agents, one gods yet different administrations and breaking chains of command that can easily make one terribly unsure of himself and the motivations of his actions in his surroundings. In the midst of a searing war, allegiances were blurred, personalities were a puzzle, if not downright anonymous, and most of all, everything – pacts, trusts, lives – is ephemeral. Colonel Sands is renowned in his field, but in order to be like that, he had to devise psychological warfare code-named Tree of Smoke and essentially cut himself out of the chain of command. And his nephew, Skip, was put on his side that acted as a double agent to sponge information from suspicious people. Eventually, the Colonel died, or did not, but in any case, he had been turned into a myth — at least in the mind of Skip, –just like all of the things that put them in Vietnam at the first place.

This novel is in-your-face tragic debilitating, one that shows you events while only revealing more gaps, more hidden gaps, more piquing unknowns. With much kick and force, it is a novel that consciously teases you of the high likelihood that what you see is not exactly what you get, so do not be too attached, do not fall right away to the words on the page. Here are classic lines where Johnson seems to intensify and calls attention to the supposed reality-dream, reality-appearances dichotomy:

“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”(36).

This was Sergeant Storm saying something Skip just recalled:

“We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream” (291).

Then back in Manila, while with Eddie Aguinaldo, Andres Pitchfork and Skip, the Colonel uttered, perhaps nonchalantly, perhaps as a matter-of-fact,

“War is ninety-percent myth anyway, isn’t it?” (61).

The reality-dream thing is something that may have gone oversold but that does not diminish one bit the validity of the claim, especially in an arena where nationality and color and other preexisting category are shed off, friends and foes are only categories that re only conditional (“But Hao – enemy or ally? Trung doubted he would ever know.” (554) and danger and eventual death both can come from virtually anywhere.

As the flimsiest of consolations go: love, lusts, lost hopes

In the thick of all tensions from within and without, creeping all over the bodies and souls of each character whose personalities and goals and motivations are ever nebulous and problematic, there are only a few things that can go as far as comforting.

With Skip, he found that in Kathy Jones, volunteer for the International Child Relief Effort and then the World Children’s Services, and his eventual spiritual and sexual partner. They met first in the Philippines and then in South Vietnam where we can assume Skip was already haunted by the things happening to him (soon, his mother will die), he said this to her: “You’re a goddamn relief. You’re making everything go away.” And then things occurred to him, and things happened. It occurred to Skip that “one person on this Earth had become known to him,” and then they slept together side by side and he would never see her again after that night, and he never really saw her again after that night. And to me that is one of the more heart-breaking things to happen in this novel. This scene, and how it became the last where Skip and Kathy were together. For in the succeeding phases of utter cluelessness and faithlessness, there were alone when they could have each other to stare at.

That ended 1968 and the meat of the novel is upcoming, more deaths, more revelations of mysteries, more falling down to purposelessness, to reeking bumness.

By 1970, both Bill and James got into jail, idly, despondently waiting for things to be done, waiting for an end, for the end to redeem them from the agonizing, seemingly pointless continuum where they find themselves. After the Vietnam War and their little exposures within it, not much has changed. They are back in their old life, only much scarred and much jaded.

And how did Johnson end it for Skip. Skip was supposed to be hung, but Johnson did not lead us into that. He take us a peek instead, at the letters Skip sent to Kathy, where perhaps for the last time, he recalled his unwieldy life fraught with aliases and deceptions  and cover-ups and ceaseless anxiety and the corresponding need for a continuing faith. And yes, he said he believed he loved Kathy, and yes, he would affirm, that “in the end of shifting allegiances, I managed to I betrayed everything I believed in” (694).

Amidst everything that has collapsed, Kathy would accompany us to the last sequence of the novel, in the MacMillan fashion show somewhere in America, where she read Skip’s letter before she gave her speech in the program. She would recognize some people in the event, people who were with her in the evacuation flight out of Saigon, when her leg got broken. And as Ms. Rand recalled the crash eight years ago, Kathy could not help but confront the images and memories presenting themselves to her again, and in the drift of her thought, while preparing for her own remark, she would only break our hearts with a seemingly vigorous hopefulness that can only dissolve in the actual harshness of the world. These last lines are what Johnson left us with her novel, and I believe these are the same lines I will leave here – where all incongruities and tragedies and back-breaking, faith-shattering circumstances can be recompensed with, not even in terms of actuality, even just in terms of thought, even just in the thinnest membranes of the mind:

“She sat in the audience thinking – someone here has cancer, someone has a broken heart, someone’s soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can’t remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who’ve ruined their health, worshipped their own lies, spat on their dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. Al will be saved.”

Here is our ghost.

Vonnegut and all the hocus pocus about this June 12

“…that the most important message of a crucifix, to me anyway, was how unspeakably cruel supposedly sane human beings can be when under orders from a superior authority” (Hocus Pocus: Kurt Vonnegut 1990, 190)

Vonnegut will make you laugh and turn you into an agitated cynic in this one.


Nearly completing Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, I am finding more endearing his caustic way of lambasting the hypocrisies, the latent atrocities, the vile that has predominated in the recent history of man. In this passage, Vonnegut was saying something special: get mad not at those who commit evil on the flesh, but to those who compel them to do so, and as my manner of furthering this, get mad not at those who compel people to commit evil, but to the systemic forces that malevolently, unknowingly drive those who do the evils. In other words, criticize not only the pawn, but also the king – the superior authority that gives orders. But even more, criticize and seek to adjust that prevalent idea of the authority being privileged and that set-up where master and mastered, authority and subordinates exist.

A bit forward in the book, Vonnegut continued with his laughably mean ways, indicting at things that have been inspiring, or paving the way for the conduct of evils in the past: colonization, Christianity. The way Vonnegut did this is so amusing just like it is amusing how someone as great an athlete like Derrick Rose can be so nonchalant after making extraordinary plays or how Corporal Paris appeared to stand laidback even with rifle shots about to give him his death in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Effortless seems to be the closest word, as if lightly criticizing unpleasant things is so natural to Vonnegut, as if doing insane, mid-air orchestrations are so built-in on Derrick Rose; as if death has just always been there for Corporal Paris.

Here, Vonnegut has something for Christianity, or to be safer, for religion-as-it-is-today in general: “They put the idea into Earthlings’ heads that the whole Universe had been created by one big male animal who looked just like them. He sat on a throne with a lot less fancy thrones all around him. When people died they got to sit on those other thrones forever because they were such close relatives of the Creator” (202, emphasis mine).

Then here, he has some words on “othering,” murdering those that are not like us supposedly for the salvation of humanity: “Another thing the Elders liked about the Earthlings was that they feared and hated other Earthlings who did not look and talk exactly as they did. They made life a hell for each other as well as for what they called “lower animals” (202).

There is wit; there is unpretentious creativity; and there is definitely a bite, and for us readers, we would more likely laugh, or grin, or smirk first, before reviewing what had just been made for us to read and then realize for ourselves, Hey, this guy is saying something else.

What is happening now? I intended this note on Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, even though I am yet to finish it, as my way of appending something to today’s well, Holiday, another day when we are given a day’s rest watching television ads about Independence, Rizal, Bonifacio, Kagitingan, Jesus’ 3pm death without exactly knowing what is special not about the dates but about the people, the events supposedly recalled, stamped into memory in those days. Perhaps just like how Vonnegut viewed the way he justified the US’ participation at the Vietnam War, holidays like today is mere hocus pocus for us – something done for the sake of doing it, even when our hearts, our minds are not in it, all rhetoric, all surface, no substance. And who will even care about celebrating Independence Day when we are fooled by US troops doing “exercises” in several parts of our country, aiding us in the face of the heavyweight “enemy” we got in China; when most of the things we can see in the metro are things made, owned, inspired by the American spirit (because it is pervading); when our President boasts of million dollar aids from foreign countries (sorry: most especially, America) but cannot tell proudly to his people the concessions behind those aids (or do we believe from the inside of our guts that every US or foreign aid is given out of pure, good-natured benevolence, without asking, demanding anything in return?).

We are all boiling down on clichés so just let me end in here: let’s do away with the hocus pocus; let’s do away with all our illusions (of independence, of economic growth, of all tuwid na daan). For this Independence Day, at the least, let us not depend on the very idea of independence they spoonfeed on us: because our everyday – from the music we listen to, the laws we are governed with, the movies we prefer, the books that occupy the greater part of book stores — will tell us another thing: there is hardly anything Filipino in the Philippines. And independence, yes another word in the dictionary.

Again: (US)dependence

The story of stories: from Kennedy to Kurosawa

John F. Kennedy is dead, that is how Denis Johnson commenced his thick story, “Tree of Smoke” which is perhaps one of the few books who dared to traverse through the heart of the Vietnam War and how it propelled history after. I should credit Listverse for meeting the book, which I thoughtlessly purchased in Booksale for 75 pesos, just a little over 10 centavos per page.

Then my current online writing occupation impelled me to look through David Lubin’s Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images, albeit only through reviews and commentaries since there seems to be no way that I could have an online access to the entire book. I am blindly tasked (who did the order, but someone, perhaps a lazy, perhaps an insipid, or perhaps someone just goddamn rich kid who badly needs to find ways to spend his money) to write a ten-page paper on how pop culture contributes in the making of the “star.” A very old idea, so I am seeing myself blabbering and stretching my special lexicon for two hours or so to supply a stranger with a final requirement that could make or break his standing in one of his subjects.

But back to Kennedy, JFK – as if he already owns those three letters, like Fernando Poe has FPJ. Incidentally, in abrupt mental drifts, I find it cute that Karl Marx could have KM. JFK. I do not know him, and it would be pointless to argue about the semantics of “knowing.” But I know him only through written texts, interviews about him, magazine articles about him, movies about him, testimonies about him. These are all stories, varied one. Everything can definitely have claims to truth, perhaps they really have some truth to offer, but most definitely only partially. No one needs to hark back to elaborate gibberish on the pliability of truth here.

Ironically, and cutely perhaps, for me, Denis Johnson begun with JFK but did not exactly focused on him. Rather, he focused on the things that succeeded that eventful moment in American history, in the process working on how a singular incident can be mythologized by the people to whom its repercussions are most significant, if not most dramatized. How did the assassination relate to the Vietnam War? Can we compared Kennedy’s death to a gasoline sparking the fire of Communism, and eventually, leading to its so-called death, lest one argues that some fire can be eternal? We can have a lot of answers here; and every answer is a story. It seems like all we have left now are stories.

In Saramago’s Blindness, we were told, or at least, I read how stories are so ironically powerful:

“…that all stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened” (265).

There are no witnesses but there is credibility, there are patches of belief. There are no first-hand experiences, no unmediated first-hand experience, but people are talking about the stories being told, and all of them have something to say. Some are even moved enough to raise a gun, to slap someone in the face, to reclaim a claimed loss.

In Kurosawa’s classic “Rashomon,” Foucault talks: on how narratives are not exactly deceptive, but not exactly purely truthful either; on how truths are claimed but only half-truths, perhaps three-fourths truths. Every story has every little bit of everything, but how do you quantify truth, is there a 100% truth? Why 100% is the yardstick of fullness? Why not 101%?

John F. Kennedy had died. And people have a lot to say. Just like when man bites dog and Obama was elected President and when education budget in the Philippines is slashed by millions. Listen to the stories, believe afterwards, subscribe much afterwards.

Bret Easton Ellis’ “The Rules of Attraction” and the pathology of sicklessness

Is Bret Easton Ellis sympathizing with his “lost” generation? Perhaps – because he was showing their lamentable situation, purposeless, spontaneous, divorced from the ground, from the outer skins of life. In “The Rules of Attraction,” Ellis showed us the nature of the American youth of the late 80s – gratifying itself with temporary things: one-night stands, drug binges, several puffs of smoke. This is a generation of youth that has perhaps lost interest in participating with issues their predecessors have fervently engaged with, the Vietnam War, most notably. All throughout the novel, I saw how Lauren, Paul and Sean tried to find purpose, tried to find activity in sex, drugs amidst perhaps the perceived boredom surrounding them, or the impinging issues, albeit more personal, asking for serious responses, actions from them. For instance, there was the divorce of Paul’s parents which he took lightly, pretentiously or otherwise. Are Ellis’ characters rebelling? If yes, against what? Against boredom? Against the miseries of life? Against loneliness?

Overrated things. But all of the above could be valid. The much storied late-teenage to early twenties phase that teems with drama and sophomoric philosophizing, adventurism and forced maturation, coupled with a social atmosphere that succeeded in placating everyone but those from the lower class by keeping the pressing social issues from erupting – this is their upshot. A bunch of college students hovering in mid-air, detached from anyone but themselves, calculating tomorrows, searching for places to spend (or splurge) their moneys on, searching for disco bars to dance nights away and places to fuck. And what rules Ellis took a hell of a book to talk about? Precisely the rulelessness of things, the classic negation that paradoxically satisfies a wanting. The rule is waywardness, aimlessness. The rule is not merely to break the rules, but to not be governed by rules. Lauren would “have four overdue art books from the library” (40) Tony would “come back from a student council meeting, stoned” (45). Paul would smoke in front of his mother. And Sean, obsessed with Lauren, would tell her, out of paranoia, to wear sweater before they visit her old Poetry teacher, because he thinks the old teacher likes Lauren and he “didn’t like the idea of Vittorio (poetry teacher) staring at her tits (189). There is no commitment here, no perspiration, no diligence. All I saw here is indolence, appetite, obsession – these kids seem to need to hark back to the world. But what if what the world has become has inspired them to be those? Trouble.

They call this bourgeois-decadence

For those who are too clingy with terms, this term would be fit for the lifestyle depicted in Ellis’ work: bourgeois-decadence. Middle-class up to rich kids getting into the cusp of life through what they deem most pleasurable, most gratifying. And perhaps there is the factor of peer pressure as well, of conformism, of wanting to be trendy. And what was trendy is for the boys to get laid before he finishes college, for girls to get a free beer or two from a guy who would screw her in the morning, for students to leave their book for their pots. These behaviors, as they would say, need discipline. And we know whims and discipline are not like yin and yang, not the same but obversive; neither just like chivalry and the modern world, for these can be still fashioned as a bricolage, an un-match that still works, even still pretty (like in the French comedy “Les Visiteurs”); but simply just oppositions, hardly workable.

Everything they wanted were just those

Because everything they want now is not what they wanted then; worse, what is now is far imaginable from what is then. The whims of these kids make them hard to guess, calculate. But as I read through, the characters’ sudden wishes become unsurprising. Where could we put the blame for this undecidedness, for this lack of commitment? Perhaps they were hearing too much, getting exposed to too many voices (Ayn Rand, Talking Heads, The Smiths, Rebel Without a Cause, One Hundred Days of Solitude, The Supremes, A Clockwork Orange, and the hippies too) that they first implode and when already uncontainable and unbearably meaningless, had to part with, had to be expressed outwardly. And so the turning to the temporarily meaningful. This generation is not sick; this generation was claimed to be shielded from any malaise. But everything was a pretense. They were lulled into dormancy, severed from the similar, bigger miseries that haunt their world and which roused the consciousness and earned the commitment of their older sisters and brothers, perhaps parents. That is why that is where we locate them, in mid-air, hallucinating, not asking, even immaturely, “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” “What is my purpose in life?” not asking even anything, because for the hell of the world, they do not care, they were not made to care, or: the things to care about were veiled, and veiled masterfully from them.

I won’t say Ellis is a genius because of this. But I can definitely say he was something for bringing this silently horrifying temper into print. And that cinches a future read from him for me.