B. R. Myers's critique of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke essentially amounts to these two complaints: a) Johnson is not a psychological realist, and b) there are passages in the book that Myers doesn't like. To my mind, neither of these points is relevant to an honest assessment of Johnson's novel, and thus Myers's "review" should be read (as Traver Kaufman also points out) as another installment in his "manifesto" against contemporary fiction and its readers and should not be confused with actual criticism of Tree of Smoke.
In his admitted ignorance of Johnson's other fiction, Myers finds it a crippling flaw that this latest novel does not "depict characters with extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives." Myers warns potential readers of Tree of Smoke: "Anyone expecting a psychological novel from characters so lacking in complexity deserves to be disappointed."
But what if, in fact familiar with Johnson's other books, we don't expect this latest one to be a "psychological novel"? What if we have concluded that Johnson's strengths as a writer don't lie in detailing the "extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives" of his characters? And what if this is so because Johnson so often portrays characters who lack an ability to reflect much on their actions, whose lives seem propelled by forces they don't control or who get caught up in events they can't foresee? What if in taking up a Denis Johnson novel we just don't think Tolstoy is a particularly apt touchstone in beginning to evaluate it?
Further, what if we think the very concept of "psychological realism" is specious to begin with? Myers thinks that the mark of a good novel is "style and depth" and that it's the psychologizing that brings the "depth." A "psychological novel" is one in which the novelist descends into the murk of human consciousness and brings up nuggets of clarity and enlightenment. Exactly what it is that makes a novelist a sufficiently expert analyst of the human mind that I would care what he/she comes up with in this dive into the depths, or that qualifies some passages of discontinuous prose or halting exposition as "psychology," has never been adequately explained to me. Pretending to mirror the ongoing operations of consciousness (or to translate those operations into coherent language) is just another way of getting words onto the page, and by now it's a dull and overused strategy. It has no special merit that entails an inherent superiority to other ways of writing.
For me, that Denis Johnson is not a psychological novelist is one of the primary reasons I would want to read his fiction in the first place.
And then there are Johnson's putative lapses in style. I'm prepared to believe that in a book as long as Tree of Smoke there will be some sluggish moments, some stylistic treading of water, or even that in this particular novel Johnson's subject has not called out the best in his prose style. However, I can't rely on Myers's analysis in order to entertain these possibilities, mainly because he doesn't provide any analysis. Most of the examples of bad writing he cites are condemned for their lack of psychological astuteness--surely a colonel would never use an "artsy compound adjective thrown in with profanity and genteelisms"--for trivial "mistakes" in word choice--apparently one must never use the word “bric-a-brac” if Vietnamese villagers are in the vicinity--for insufficent knowledge of physics--"Could someone standing in such a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?"--or an overreliance on "startling word combinations"--one's pulse shouldn't "snicker" and one's sweat shouldn't "creak--but rarely are they examined in any detail or with much insight. Frankly, many of the passages Myers cites seem ok to me. But because I don't share Myers's assumptions about how a novelist's words "should mean something," I guess I'm just one of those who "contribute to the rot" of the King's English.
Certainly Myers does almost nothing to demonstrate that Johnson's prose style actually is deficient, aside from quoting a number of passages and making some irritated remarks about them. He assumes we will agree with him that the passages are indeed bad, but I don't, or at least I want some close reading of them that points out their particular flaws. Instead I get this, about one extended sample of "bad prose":
It is not always easy to tell whether Johnson is being serious or merely unfunny, but I sense no irony here. Rather than disdain Edward’s puerile humor and self-importance, we are to share his condescension toward a society that would never “get” his lampoon, which, by the way, has little chance of being off-color with an “unmountable” lead (another case of Johnson canceling out his own words). We are also to accept that although Edward is now the kind of man who lets puppies starve to death, and is something of a sociopath to boot, his experiences afford him unique insight into Philippine society. In a mad world only the madmen are sane, and all that. . . .
Note that what is supposed to be an example of bad prose turns out to be a criticism of one character's "puerile humor and self-importance" and of the notion that "in a mad world only the madmen are sane," etc. Nothing in Myers's commentary is an examination of style. Perhaps he tells me that I might not like this particular character or that the underlying theme is banal (both a matter of individual judgment of course, each requiring a separate critical argument), but he tells me nothing about Denis Johnson as a stylist. In fact, there is nothing in Myer's review that suggests to me that he knows anything at all about what makes for an effective prose style, nor that he read Tree of Smoke in order to fairly appraise it for what it is trying to accomplish rather than find in it what he wanted to find--an excuse to engage in more splenetic denunciation of contemporary fiction.
Myers's review serves to remind us that he doesn't much care for contemporary fiction. (Although, having read A Reader's Manifesto as well as several of his subsequent reviews, I still don't really know why.) I'm not sure, however why the Atlantic Monthly's book editor otherwise thought it was something worth publishing. As a piece of literary criticism, it's pretty wretched.