Dec 9, 2007

is Tree of Smoke a literary hoax?

B.R. Myers puts the smack down:
Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else. According to The New York Times, which in 2006 sent a questionnaire to writers, editors, and critics, a collection of Johnson’s short stories titled Jesus’ Son is regarded by some as the best American book of the past 25 years. He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer. Denis Johnson is, in short, the sort of novelist whose work one expects to be reviewed on the cover of every prominent newspaper’s book section, as Tree of Smoke was in September. Equally predictable was the reviewers’ implicit injunction that we should ask not what the book can do for us, but what it can do for Johnson’s place in American letters. This much is standard Important Writer treatment, and for all I know, Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times), Jim Lewis (The New York Times Book Review), and other reviewers consider Johnson worthy of it no matter what he puts out. What I find difficult to believe is that they admire Tree of Smoke. For one thing, their own prose is better than anything in it. For another, they try to lower our expectations for the book even as they cry it up as the main event of the fall publishing season. Lewis, for example, gives a marveling nod at the part in which “two drunken soldiers, one of them an amputee, have a long, inane conversation, during which the disabled one announces, ‘My invisible foot hurts.’”

An amputee with a phantom limb, fancy that. Lewis’s aside that Tree of Smoke “doesn’t feel like a Denis Johnson novel” lends weight to the assumption that a writer cannot become famous by writing like this, at least not yet.
Read the whole thing for samples of Johnson's lavender prose, or check out the first five pages using Amazon's "Search Inside The Book" feature. If you think "Bulwer-Lytton contest entry," you're not alone.

I can't decide if the novel is a serious effort, a parody of The Things They Carried, or a fraud, a literary Sokal Affair--but I'm not going to shell out $16 for certainty.

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