Friday, October 12, 2007

Denis Johnson armwrestles Samuel Richardson -- and wins!

I'm a one-dimensional creature who can only focus on one thing at a time. When I'm into books, I focus only on books and go weeks and weeks without seeing a movie. When I burn out on literature, I head for the movies and catch up on everything I've missed. Life should be balanced but it never is. I tend to be compulsive that way. Through it all, the only constant is lots of music.

When I read, I invariably wind up reading more than a book at a time, which has lead to all kinds of confusion. Two weeks ago, for example, I started Samuel Richardson's Clarissa when sheer good sense should have told me I didn't have the time for a 1,500 page novel with real tiny print.

Turns out I fell totally in love with it. It's this impossibly epistolary novel detailing the considerable misfortunes of Clarissa Harlowe, whose rich but wretched family is absolutely insistent that she marry this dried up old stick named Solmes (thereby improving their fortune) while she herself in more interested in a local rake named Lovelace. The drama of all this is played out in letters, very, very long letters, more than most people could write in a day (and Clarissa sometimes knocks off several a day), back and forth between Clarissa and her friend Miss Anna Howe, who is her only support against her family. She eventually writes back and forth to her family, eventhough they all live in the same house and are mostly on non-speaking terms because Clarissa won't give in to their demands.

The great, great thing about the book is that it's about the love of writing. Clarissa's freedom is imperiled from all sides by her family and society; writing is all she has going for her, this great freedom of expression she has when she sets pen to paper. She is only free when she writes. The story is nothing if not repetitive, so far anyway, but I'm totally engrossed in it.

Which created a problem, because I'd been putting off reading Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke and there it was staring at me. I made a rough start on the Johnson, but kept running off to Clarissa, which seems like it ought to be the opposite, really, as one is this towering Vietnam War novel and one isn't. I found myself disliking Johnson's book, liking and disliking, even hating it at one point, until I finally decided to set aside Samuel Richardson long enough to just get Johnson off my back.

Oddly enough, by the time I finished I though Tree of Smoke was oone of the best, most impressive novels I'd read in forever; the ending is a real, real stunner that pulls together a variety of themes that run throughout the book, and I found myself going back over it, thinking and rethinking it -- and, like some great album or great film that just gets under your skin, possesses you and must be exorcised, I immediately decided to go through it again, reading it this time with a lot more energy and focus -- and notes! I thought, okay, we're going to go full force on this one, so I bought a little notebook and started jotting down everything about the book that got to me or impressed me or which seemed to reflect off something else. It's a really, really staggering book. I'm almost finished with the second go-round. It's a very complex story that draws in so much; a novel both deeply literary and historic, a novel about a secret CIA mission that involves collecting the myths and legends of Vietnam for use in a psychological war against the country, a struggle for the "hearts and minds," as the popular phrase went, and the novel itself takes on extremely mythic dimensions, drawing on everything from the Bible to Heart of Darkness to Moby-Dick to The Great Gatsby to The Quiet American to The Ugly American and more I probably haven't noticed.

It's about truth turns into fiction and fiction turns into truth, reality turns into a nightmare and vice-versa. It's a Vietnam novel that seems to have gobbled up all the ones that came before it.

Also -- why is it of late that everything I touch has something to do with predestination? First there was Against the Day, which I sometimes think I'm still reading, as it continues to kind of weigh on me, the most staggering single novel of the past few years, and then there was War and Peace, which is largely about the same thing, and now Tree of Smoke, in which the whole idea of who will be saved and who will be damned is at the center of the book's spiritual core.

Maybe I ought to read Giles Goat-Boy next.

I'm almost desperate to say more about it, which is why I'm writing this post now, a little ahead of time, before I have all my many thought sorted out into something approaching coherence. Tomorrow afternoon, I look forward to the opportunity to put it altogether -- it's peaks and pits, which it does have. It's boring in parts, distended, melodramatic and occasionally clotted with glum ironic DeLilloisms, but either it gets over them or I did.

In the meantime, read the book.

It will knock you on your ass.


richard said...

Yes, but what about Clarissa? Did you finish it?

RW said...

Not yet -- I keep getting interrupted