"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Big, Dirty Unmade Bed of a Book

Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke:

Central to Johnson's dramatised worldview is the belief that it is the mangled and damaged, the downtrodden, who are best placed to achieve - "withstand" is probably a better verb - enlightenment. It's like an inversion of the idea of the law of the jungle where trees vie with each other to reach for the sky, the light. For Johnson the real revelations are at ground level, amid the degradation of mush and swamp. As such there are moments of extreme ugliness and horror. In 1968 a GI spoons out the eye of a VC prisoner and James Houston yells: "Give it to the motherfucker. Make him holler." Thus encouraged the soldier "grabbed the man's eyeballs hanging by the purple optic nerves and turned the red veiny side so the pupils looked back at the empty sockets and the pulp in the cranium. 'Take a good look at yourself, you piece of shit.'" A little while earlier James had emerged from a firefight in the aftermath of which "every blurred young face he looked at gave him back a message of brotherly love." But then his buddy got wounded and ended up in hospital "like the Frankenstein monster laid out in pieces, wired up for the jolt that would wake him to a monster's confused and tortured finish." The book is a monster in that sense, jolted constantly into life by its own damaged circuitry, a mass of spare parts all held together with a relentlessly deranged sense of purpose and quotations from Artaud and Cioran.

I totally get what the reviewer is saying about Johnson's work, and this review would get me to read the book even if I didn't already have it on my to-read list.

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