To read Jim Lewis’s review of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is to enter an overvalued campanile of stupidity, amateurish insight, half-baked conclusions, and insufferable smugness that one expects from a Forbes 500 member who has the apparent misfortune of running into a groundling. The groundling, of course, is you, me, any curious insect climbing up an unsightly sandhill to scout out the dreaded conformists who would replace a beautiful literary vale with their high colonic obstructions.
“Good morning and please listen to me,” begins Lewis, adopting the tone of a bemused rube looking around a restaurant, unsure of how to pay the bill while others simply settle up. In fact, Lewis is so unsure of nearly everything about Johnson that he lacks even the self-starting impetus to ask. This rube is more preoccupied with where Johnson has talked and when Johnson has been photographed, but is so indolent a critic that he cannot even perform two Google searches to answer his own questions. (And whether such junket-like qualifiers matter in a review that has plenty to mine from a meaty 614-page book is debatable.) That such an dull and incurious reader would be assigned for a major Sunday newspaper section — indeed, Lewis openly confesses that he doesn’t care much to review books — is truly astonishing, or would be less so, if the boys’ brigade at the NYTBR were not in the regular habit of offering reviews written by idiots, signifying nothing.
For example, here’s Lewis on his ostensible hero:
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.
Nice to see Lewis taking a writer as sui generis as Johnson and comparing him like some terrified undergraduate haphazardly flipping through a syllabus to meet the requirements of a term paper. Any good literary critic would have known damn well that Denis Johnson was one of the “dirty realism” poster boys a few decades ago and weaved something of this early assessment into his piece. (David Ulin, who should know better, did not, I’m afraid. But at least one gets a comparative example in Ulin’s review that cannot be found anywhere in Lewis’s review.)
Lewis is so lazy that he cannot even point out that Jesus’s Son was, in fact, a series of linked stories. (Has he even read it?) In Lewis’s myopic universe, there are only clumsy taxonomies: “novelist-performers or novelist-pundits or novelist-narcissists” and “novelists who can write this well,” but never any crossover. Lewis is likewise incapable of understanding a sentence, or, like a true linguistic explorer, even venturing a stab at what it might mean. He quotes a sentence, only to flex his critical acumen like so: “What a thing to say, but the book is moving on.” In the same paragraph, he demonstrates that he probably has no business being a critic, seeing as how he cannot even offer precise imagery that one would expect from a novelist. Lewis describes sentences that “roll like billiard balls with weird English on them.” This is an assessment? It strikes me as the kind of thing a literary enthusiast might say to you in a bar after five martinis, but not something that any reasonable person would include in a review in lieu of an attempt to parse the text. (“Y’know thot ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan’ sentence? Rolls like a bowling ball with odd Irish neologisms on it…me few pounds, give me a lash.”)
Like the same frightened undergraduate meeting every prescribed point in a five-paragraph essay, Lewis confesses to his readers: “But I haven’t told you what the thing is about yet.” With sentences like these, one wonders why the NYTBR didn’t just run this review with bracketed sentences. (“[Insert compelling lede here.],” “[Mandatory plot summary.],” the like.) He complains about the “hardware on display (guns, airplanes, intelligence equipage),” but doesn’t seem to understand that a novel involving a CIA agent might actually require such objects. He then offers one of the grandest insults imaginable to Johnson:
And he can occasionally overindulge in significance: a longish journey, at the end of “Tree of Smoke,” left me with the uneasy sense that he can’t tell the difference between Joseph Conrad, who was a genius, and Joseph Campbell, who was not.
I think Johnson’s work stands for itself, but, since Lewis is the kind of yokel who won’t be satisfied until he hears it from the horse’s mouth, here’s Johnson questioned about his post-apocalyptic novel Fiskadoro — by the New York Times, no less:
”Fiskadoro” grew out of Mr. Johnson’s earlier idea ”for a book about a person left after the holocaust, living in sort of a savage state. It was much more primitive than this, and very tribal.” He expected that ”Fiskadoro” too would be centered on a single character, the adolescent boy of the title. ”But I found that he was actually always a little bit distant. For that reason, the two other characters representing different modes of consciousness became more and more prominent.”
This clear emphasis on narrative compartmentalization doesn’t sound to me like a guy who mixes up his two Josephs.
And here’s a hint for the Tanenhaus crew, or any other book review editor: A “critic” or a “reviewer” who calls a mammoth book written by a leading contemporary writer a mere “thing” should probably be led to the door or thoroughly flogged in front of a throng of illiterate cokeheads.
If this is the kind of long-form review that Sam Tanenhaus considers acceptable, Tanenhaus’s remarkable ability to enervate the life and love of fiction through such crude and base shepherding keeps the NYTBR a dessicated husk more fit for automatons than enthusiasts.