Books, a constant source of solace for whatever ails the soul…I am just now getting through Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, and I was compelled by hope expressed in a review of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Tree of Smoke. The review is written by Jim Lewis (whose work I have not read unfortunately) but who has written about the new novel with mastery. I was awed by Johnson’s book of short stories, Jesus’ Son, and this new novel sounds like a must read as well.
Here’s a few excerpts from Lewis’ review:
Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and “Tree of Smoke” is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop…“Tree of Smoke” is a soulful book, even a numinous one (it’s dedicated “Again for H.P.” and I’ll bet you a bundle that stands for “higher power”), and it ought to secure Johnson’s status as a revelator for this still new century…
Johnson has always been an elusive figure, one of the last of the marginal masters. He’s not a recluse, but he’s not out humping his ego, either: I’ve never read an interview with him (though I haven’t looked very hard), or seen a picture of him that wasn’t on one of his book jackets. More important, it has often seemed as if the books themselves — there have been six novels, a book of short stories and one of plays, three volumes of poetry and a collection of journalism — have bloomed spontaneously from the secret fissures that crisscross Americana: jail cells, bad neighborhoods, bus stations, cheap frame houses in the fields beyond the last streetlight. They’re full of deprived souls in monstrous situations, hapless pilgrims on their way to their next disaster. But unlike most books about the dispossessed, they’re original (how strange it feels to use that word these days, but it fits), and what’s more, deliriously beautiful — ravishing, painful; as desolate as Dostoyevsky, as passionate and terrifying as Edgar Allan Poe.
Johnson’s standing, then, is ideal for a writer today: ample respect from his colleagues and peers, a bit of support from institutions and a large following that has nonetheless left him vaguely outside of things. “Tree of Smoke” is a massive thing and something like a masterpiece; it’s the product of an extraordinary writer in full stride. But I can’t help hoping that it leaves his status unchanged. We don’t need any more novelist-performers or novelist-pundits or novelist-narcissists, but we very badly need more novelists who can write this well.
Yes, yes and yes to not needing any more performers, pundits or narcissists masquerading as writers. (Same could be said for visual artists. Enough already.)
So here’s a bit more about Lewis, from the editors of the Book Review:
Jim Lewis…is only an occasional book critic. “My idea of hell is being obliged to have something to say about everything that comes around. To be constantly assigning value to this or that,” he said by e-mail. “I just don’t have that many opinions. On the other hand, when I do feel strongly about something, it’s a great pleasure to take some time away from the things I’m otherwise absorbed in to say so. Get up on my hind legs and holler: it’s invigorating, and it can be a lot of fun.”
Lewis, who is working on what he describes as a “gnostic novel about New York,” had this to say about Denis Johnson: “He’s one of the writers whose works I find I can’t do without. There are a few of them — J. M. Coetzee, Mary Gaitskill. Maybe there are more than a few. They seem to write at right angles to everyone else, and while I don’t always admire everything they do, I find them inescapable: they demand attention. Their worst work is worth more to me than other people’s best, and their best is something I will always carry.”
“Another way of putting it,” Lewis added, is that “Mike Kelley once said that he made art in order to give other people his problems. Johnson is one of the writers who has succeeded in giving me his.”
Some great language, no? What a phrase–writing at “right angles to everyone else.” Indeed. And making art to give your problems to somebody else. Love that! Besides, anybody who applauds Coetzee and Gaitskill is a cotraveler IMHO. Both are on my list of Top 10 Authors (that’s a vague thing, it doesn’t really exist except as a notion.)
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