Monday, September 28, 2009


A Gate at the Stairs
Lorrie Moore

Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson


Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson are both novelists best known for their short story collections (Birds of America and Jesus' Son). While I enjoyed both of these novels, I don't think either comes off on the whole; along with Anne Enright's Gathering, they are good examples of what happens when novels with interesting material suffer from structural flaws; in each case, I think the flaws have to do with the fact that short stories (and esp. collections) require less careful arranging than novels. Each of these novels is, in its own way, clumsily contrived; they all feel over-planned, as is often the case with work that isn't planned carefully enough.

Johnson's 600-odd page book aims to be a grand panoramic novel about Vietnam; the theme might induce a sinkiang feeling but shouldn't, Johnson's very good on people in the more advanced stages of rage and fuckedupness. Tree of Smoke is filled with the usual Johnsonian menagerie of memorable characters: Kathy Jones, who grieves for her dead Adventist husband by having uncomfortable sex with the first white man she finds, and stalks leanly and hungrily through the novel; the Colonel, legendary and drunk, with his crackpot theories about the CIA's proper place; the Houstons, all id, whom the war neither kills nor strengthens but can still scare shitless; etc. All of this is very well done: so, on the whole, is the main character Skip Sands, who's the straight guy to Kathy and the Colonel until he unconvincingly goes apeshit and ends up running guns in Thailand. But all of this is spread out among reams of deadweight: local color, formulaic barroom scenes, a Vietnamese subplot involving a double agent (in general the Asian characters are lousy), and more than you ever wanted to hear about jungles and temples. The book is arranged chronologically, beginning (disastrously) with the JFK assassination and walking the characters through the major stages of the war; the interleaving of stories is often distracting, and generally makes the first quarter or so of the book quite painful. The second half is better and less portentous, but even here it's not entirely clear that the stories add up to more, interleaved, than they would as e.g. a book of 'Nam-themed short stories.

A Gate at the Stairs is a coming-of-age novel with 9/11 as backdrop; thankfully it doesn't have much to do with 9/11 but, once again, the Big Themes are too blatant to work. Unlike Tree of Smoke it has a plot, sort of: Tassie Keltjin is a "quasi Jew" from rural Wisconsin who goes to college in a random midwestern college town and gets enmeshed in the relatively complicated life of Sarah Brink, a middle-aged woman who tries to adopt a child with her sleazy husband and hires Tassie as the babysitter. The child they end up with is half-black: various cultural difficulties ensue, which end up with Sarah setting up a support group for minority parents to get drunk and blather -- unconvincingly, superficially, and at inordinate length -- about minority issues. Meanwhile Tassie has an affair with a "Brazilian" who turns out to be an Islamic terrorist. When Tassie goes home that winter she finds that her brother is about to enlist and her mother is insufferable. Everything eventually disintegrates at the end of the spring semester; Tassie goes home for the summer and her brother gets sent off to Afghanistan and dies. Tassie gets weepy and reflective, takes a semester off and then goes back to college.

Nevertheless, this novel has its merits; it's beautifully written in bits, and social -- and other -- events are sharply observed. Sarah Brink is worked out with extreme precision. There are two reasons that none of this really helps in the end. The first is that the plot is too obviously contrived to get the social (and intellectual, and whatever) commentary in, the deeper problem though is that the commentary is shallow and boring. Two examples: 1. Tassie supposedly has her mind aflame with Simone de Beauvoir, Chaucer(!), etc., from her (pre-plot) first semester, but her second-semester classes are almost entirely an excuse for Moore to satirize academic silliness and out-of-touchness. The satire isn't good enough to excuse the breach of character. 2. Tassie is paid to babysit the Brink baby and all the other multicultural babies while their parents go on about culture downstairs. From time to time someone uses an agricultural metaphor, and the narrator reminds you that she's from a farm and knows what a backhoe is. This gets substantially less endearing about the sixtieth time.

What these novels have in common is that they're too easy to categorize. They seem to have been written along the following lines: "let me write a novel of type X. Where shall I set it? What sort of characters do I need? What themes or battles should I include?" This is both overambitious -- both books would have been better if the authors knew their limits -- and lazy, because the framework of a book ought to be revised to deal with the obvious fact that some bits work a lot better than others, or have diverged from the main plot. This is also part of what was wrong with Anne Enright's The Gathering -- deadweight like the Lamb Nugent plot was left for the reader to sift through because taking it out would have involved rearranging the book, which would have been too much trouble.


Unknown said...

See, I don't think Tree of Smoke is about Vietnam at all. In my estimation, it is roughly 100% about America. Haven't read the Moore.

Zed said...

Oh I agree. I think the novel _thinks_ it is about Vietnam, though, and that this is responsible for a lot of clutter and tedium. My problem with the Vietnamese characters is that they're all props, and as props go they take up too much space.

Zed said...

I would recommend the Moore, btw.