Tree of Smoke is an epic Vietnam novel which was published in 2007. Straightaway, in that one sentence, there's a great big Why forming. Or several. Why another Vietnam novel? And why now?
The novel appears to be impeccably researched and assiduously structured. It covers the years 1963-70, with a coda set in 1983. Each year has its own chapter. The book doesn't reach Vietnam until 1965, having started in the Philippines, the States, and other parts of South East Asia. There is a cast of about half a dozen characters, most of whom are connected in some way to the mythical 'Colonel', who is the uncle of the man who might be the main protagonist, Skip Sands. The Colonel has a Kurtzian approach to the war, believing that the constrictions imposed by bureaucracy and the rules of engagement will lead to defeat. He sets up his own mini-kingdom near the front line, which is attacked during the Tet Offensive. Eventually the Colonel's enemies within the CIA get the better of him. However, dynamic though his story sounds, it's but a part of the tale, and much of the attention focuses on Skip, who spends most of the war hidden away in an old French villa, reading and translating the books which the doctor who used to live there left behind. One of the passages he translates is by Artaud, the reference acting like a small hinge opening a door onto Johnson's underlying poetic ambitions.
Because for all the keenly noted detail, and the sense of place which is conjured up, the book often feels as though its only tangentially concerned with the Vietnam war. It's actually something of a character study, as half a dozen personalities including a North Vietnamese spy, an aid worker, and an infantryman, explore their minds against the backdrop of war's chaos. These characters are constantly reaching for philosophical truths to guide them through the chaos, truths which might offer some reason for soldiering on within a grubby world, truths that might help them maintain a faith in idealism, or God, or their country. Nowhere is this clearer than in the 80s coda when Storm, one of the more marginal characters up to now, ends his search for the colonel by participating in what looks like becoming a savage kind of sacrificial ritual. There's a constant search going on for meaning, a search that might be military, or might be studious, or might be self-sacrificing, or might just be venal.
Vietnam itself acts as the epic backdrop for these human struggles. The book feels like it's been unashamedly written in the shadow of all the Vietnam literature and movies that have gone before it, from Despatches to Apocalypse Now. However, there are also occasional hints of the other US wars being waged right now, as when a reference to capturing 'hearts and minds' leaps out of the text. The tree of smoke itself refers to a variety of things, including the cloud formed by an atomic bomb. Johnson might be intimating with these references and allusions that the US has and always will be a bellicose nation, something that those who come in contact with it need to understand; a state of being which has philosophical implications, shaping the way in which we think and act.
Or maybe this is a vague and unhelpful reading. However, Johnson's text, with its arcane poetics, appears to be inviting or provoking analysis: the very title itself, with its biblical connotations, seems to beseech interpretation. It's a book which self-consciously lays out the many levels it can be read on: part wartime saga; part lost book of the old testament; part poetic exegesis of the state of the writer's nation.