Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

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

It’s hard to believe that there has been no great Vietnam War novel. The war has been better served by memoirs (Ron Kovics’ Born on the 4th of July and Neil Sheehan’s Bright Shining Lie) and especially cinema (Apocalypse Now and Coming Home, among others). Perhaps the best story about the conflict may be Graham Greene’s The Quiet American but that was written by a Brit in 1955, before the conflict became a national security issue making front page headlines. Back then it was but one of the many stories of decolonization rapidly transforming geopolitics in Asia and Africa in the 1950s. At the time of Greene’s novel it wasn’t quite yet the war it became, an ideological civil war between North and South lasting more than 15 years. The great World Wars were comparatively brief. Is it for this reason that Vietnam defies the ambition of writers in recasting the war in a poetic narrative? Is it just too damn big, ugly, and morally wrong? Where would you even begin?

It shouldn’t be so. After all, moral dilemmas make for some of the best reading. Into this discussion rides Denis Johnson and his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke. At first glance, it wouldn’t seem that Johnson, famous for his poetic tales of dropouts and ex-cons in books like Angel and Jesus Son would be the kind of guy to give the Vietnam War its just due. But this isn’t quite about politics or platoons as it is about personalities, dreams, and God. The hall-of-mirrors confusion of such a setting is perfect for a writer like Johnson, a writer that revels in tricky storytelling and moral ambiguity. Rather than going there, he prefers tumbling down the slippery slope of Manichean worldviews. When everyone is just trying to stay alive in a place as brutal as ’Nam, who are the good guys anyway? Literature being a Western art form, in a cross-cultural conflict we tend to write from our side of things. Among various detailed atrocities, to save us from a supposed Communism menace, our government employed seven-ton super bombs against North Vietnam, capable of decimating 8000 square meters. Into this inferno we also dropped Spiders, small grenades with near-invisible antennas that were detonated upon touch. They were designed to kill survivors helping the wounded or putting out fires. And for what purpose in the end? The defeat of an exaggerated Communist means. No, the end never justified the means. While Johnson describes little of the fighting itself (besides the Tet Offensive), at times he captures the situation’s moral ambivalence perfectly:

“They threw hand grenades through doorways and blew the arms and legs off ignorant farmers, they rescued puppies from starvation and smuggled them home to Mississippi in their shirts, they burned down whole villages and raped young girls, they stole medicines by the jeepload to save the lives of orphans.”

The closest we come to a concept of a hero (in the Greek sense: military honors, hubris, appetites, tragic trajectory) is an alcoholic raconteur, Colonel Sands. Running a renegade CIA outfit with his nephew and a few aids, he understands that the Vietnamese goal of self-determination may be too powerful for the U.S. to win the war no matter how many bombs are dropped. However, he believes in a certain hearts & minds strategy:

“This land under our feet is where the Vietcong locate their national heart. This land is their myth. We penetrate this land, we penetrate their heart, their myth, their soul. That’s real infiltration. And that’s our mission: penetrating the myth of the land.”

Ironically (or perhaps not very much so), the colonel’s base is above Cu Chi, the famous tunnel network from which the Vietcong conducted guerilla warfare. The Colonel is a true Cold War Warrior, a legend of his own time, with nearly three decades experience in Asia battling “evil.” In Vietnam his status or relationship to the Top Brass is enigmatic and it seems his scheming is likely outside of the military hierarchy or jurisdiction. Even his relationship to leadership in the CIA seems sketchy. Like an artist or perhaps a conman, he is looking beyond military strength to defeat the enemy. In the colonel’s world, mindfucking can be just as powerful as strategic bombing, as this memo conveys:

“…Consider the possibility that a coterie or insulated group might elect to create fictions independent of the leadership’s intuition of its own needs. And might serve these fictions to the enemy in order to influence choices.”

The Colonel’s number one point man in carrying through his plans with a double agent is his nephew, Skip. Skip likes languages and has a mustache. “Always a sucker for sardonic, myopic, intellectual women,” he enjoys a fling with Kathy, a missionary in the Philippines, who also relocates to Vietnam to help orphans and who writes Skip digressive letters that make him uncomfortable. Kathy “wasn’t, herself, beautiful. Her moments were beautiful.” But Skip is mostly alone in a countryside villa that once belonged to a French colonial doctor who went mad in isolation and whose obsession with tunnels was his mortal ruin. Skip, bored with a pre-Internet burden of cataloging everybody or everything associated with the war up to that point spends hours translating the deceased doctor’s diary entries, including the following:

“Is the mind a labyrinth through which the consciousness gropes its way or is the mind the boundless void in which certain limited thoughts rise up and disappear?”

It feels like Johnson’s own consciousness is in on this labyrinth. The novel feels piecemeal at times, following satellite characters to dead ends. The book often reads like a screenplay or a poem, shifting between bizarre conversations and weird prose. Johnson is capable of lovely, nuanced language and it is for the writing more than anything else that one reads Denis Johnson. However, sometimes you just don’t know what to make of him. Getting carried away with the kooky, psychedelic nature of the war, Johnson occasionally fails to articulately establish setting:

“He crouched by the window and listened shuddering to the sound of ripped high-voltage wires out there stroking the darkness, humming closer and farther, feeling along the darkness after fear. The voltage sucked along the shaft of fear toward any heart emanating it and burned the soul right inside it. That was the True Death. Thereafter nobody lived in that heart, nobody saw out of those eyes. The stench of such burning floated in and out of the room all night.”

But I’m nitpicking. If the story and its scenarios are confusing, it’s only mirroring the war. The novel’s titular Tree of Smoke has Old Testament connotations as well as, of course, an atomic reference to widespread devastation. It’s also about something that has a shape but no actual being, much like what happened to our soldiers who fought there. War is brutal enough when it’s waged with something at stake. But when we have to invent principles, the line between tragedy and farce blurs, just as our notion of heroism. In such battlefields, many one-eyed kings are crowned:

“You’re sad about the kids, sad about the animals, you don’t do the women, you don’t kill the animals, but after that you realize this is a war zone and everybody here lives in it. You don’t care whether these people live or die tomorrow, you don’t care whether you yourself live or die tomorrow, you kick the children aside, you do the women, you shoot the animals.”

1 comment:

  1. I waited to comment on this because I saw you reviewing it here the day I bought it.

    You say "But this isn’t quite about politics or platoons as it is about personalities, dreams, and God."

    I say all those things are just aspects of people and the whole thing, well, it's just Johnson's attempt at talking about people. Put a person in this circumstance and see what happens.

    The semi-peripheral Houston brothers are deadbeat drunks, during war or peacetime, wherever you put them. Sure it changes them some, but basically Johnson is saying that people don't change, even under the most inhumane of circumstances. Is this a borderline Hobbesian view? Who knows.

    While I agree in that occasionally Johnson meanders, you are correct in saying that so too does his subject. I think he hit the poetic prose nail on the head with this passage:

    "The girl leaned against him and touched her fingers lightly to his chest hair. The desert nights dipped well below fifty Fahrenheit, but Bill Houston went bare-skinned under a black leather jacket. His name on the street was Leather Bill. The rest of his wardrobe were jeans and boots wrecked by the abrasions of life." 1970 p.615