“Tree of Smoke” is perhaps the greatest disappointment I’ve read in quite awhile. This might be a result of the consistently amazing reviews I found, or the National Book Award sticker, or even Johnson’s stellar reputation as a novelist, but at the same time, the book fails to engage the reader, and trudges along without much thrust for close to 800 pages…so…whatever the expectations, there were really some major issues with the book itself.
“Tree of Smoke” is billed as a sort of quintessential novel of the Vietnam experience, and here’s the problem: like Don Delillo’s “Underworld,” it completely forsakes traditional narrative and plot in order to create its own structure. But Delillo, as intelligent as he is, never fully convinced me that his structure was better than a traditional “story structure.” His book wandered, offering fragments and disconnected narratives to give an overall “Cold War experience.” Johnson is the same. We have a series of characters that we follow through various moments, some of which are connected, others which never really go anywhere. By the end, it feels like a collage, rather than a plot.
At first, the idea of a “collage” sounds like it could be interesting, but keep in mind: this thing is 800 pages long. And it never goes anywhere. Does Johnson have a reason for this structure? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that his reasons for the structure have created an engaging book, or even a book that is involving or interesting. Sometimes, we see some brilliant glimmers of character, and sometimes we see some brilliant prose, and it was enough to keep me reading (I thought it might get better, and I’d already committed to reading it, etc.), but it was never enough to convince me that “Tree of Smoke” is, in fact, a brilliant “novel.” Picture a collage; imagine looking at 800 pages of collage, knowing that the artist could have given us something that made more sense, and that actually engaged us.
And compare “Tree of Smoke” with two other quintessential Baby Boomer/ Vietnam novels: John Irving’s “A Prayer For Owen Meany,” and Stephen King’s “Hearts of Atlantis.” Both, despite the fairly sprawling nature of the books, maintain character-centered plots, and yet still manage to paint a rich picture of an experience. “Tree of Smoke” does give us a sprawling look at Vietnam, but we just keep asking…why the hell am I reading this?