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Literature / Tree of Smoke

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"Young men, while you live," he told them, "find out how to wake up from this nightmare."
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Tree of Smoke is an esoteric war novel written by Denis Johnson and first published in 2007, winning the National Book Award for Fiction. It is very long, very nightmarish, and almost too metaphysical for its own good. Despite being advertised as an epic novel about The Vietnam War, Johnson's work is about a lot more than just that.

Due to its slow pacing, penchant for low-key dialogue, and horrifically dreamlike atmosphere, the book has become known for being somewhat divisive among readers. There's no single protagonist (although there are several related plot threads), the protagonists are deeply flawed at best and downright bizarre in their actions and motives at times.

The closest thing to a "hero" the book has is Colonel Sands, a retired war hero who leads an operation in Vietnam with the help of the CIA. A bit zany in his antics, although trust us when we say he's one of the most sane characters in the entire book.

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Think Ulysses meets The Things They Carried.

Tree of Smoke contains examples of the following tropes:

  • An Arm and a Leg: There's a soldier with a leg that got blown off, using crutches to get around.
  • Anti-Hero: Oh yes. In an ensemble of troubled protagonists, though, James Houston takes the cake. The Houston family as a whole is pretty messed up, really.
  • Anyone Can Die: And die they do. Horribly.
  • Black and Gray Morality: And it's a fairly dark shade of gray.
  • Black Comedy: Some of the soldiers' antics are this with a healthy dose of Mind Screw.
  • Born Lucky: Those who accompany him see Colonel Sands as invincible to an almost-supernatural degree.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Sometimes Played for Laughs, other times for Surreal Horror.
  • Colonel Kilgore: Sergeant Harmon can come across as this.
  • Cool Old Guy: Colonel Sands served in World War II, and despite now being a civilian is practically worshiped by his subordinates.
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  • Door Stopper: About 700 pages long, depending on the edition.
  • Eagleland: Definitely a mixture of both types. Skip Sands and the colonel are Type 1, at least at first, while many of the American soldiers are more Type 2.
  • Females Are More Innocent: Innocence which is then utterly crushed, particularly in Kathy Jones's plot thread.
  • Mind Screw: When shit gets weird, it gets really weird. Though considering how James and other characters are either drunk or high (or both) a lot of the time, this isn't too surprising.
  • Nightmare Fuel: Once our heroes enter Vietnam, things get very ugly.
  • Skewed Priorities: Remember kids, when you're in the middle of a war zone it's best to get drunk as possible and as often as possible.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Quite a few of them, it seems.
  • Surreal Horror: On top of all the violence and symbolism, some things simply do not make much sense when taken at face value, but that doesn't make them any less unnerving.
  • Not So Different: The Americans and Vietnamese are ultimately not so different from each other. See Black and Gray Morality. There's also the Filipinos and the French settlers. One theme of the book seems to be that humans have more in common with each other than they assume.
  • Surrealism: Much like The Things They Carried, this is a modern example of surrealist literature, although it does come back to Earth every now and again.
  • World of Symbolism: Present throughout, but becomes more apparent in trippy passages.

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