December 7, 2007


A Bright Shining Lie: It’s the most critically acclaimed novel of the fall. And it’s astonishingly bad (B. R. Myers. November 2007, The Atlantic)

When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.

Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else. According to The New York Times, which in 2006 sent a questionnaire to writers, editors, and critics, a collection of Johnson’s short stories titled Jesus’ Son is regarded by some as the best American book of the past 25 years. He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer. [...]

Not even Robert De Niro’s combination of Special Forces uniform and goatee in The Deer Hunter—which elicited howls of laughter in the theater near Fort Ord, California, where I first saw it—is as preposterous as Tree of Smoke’s Black Man, whom the U.S. Army and the tropical jungle allow to keep his name patch covered with tape. He prefers to be called Black Man, you see. He also likes gruffly telling other soldiers how small his penis is. Black Man is one of many indications that the author is unfamiliar not only with military life but with male company in general.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 7, 2007 11:42 AM

I clicked through to the essay, which quotes extensively from the book.

Saints preserve us! I've read zoning regulations that were more entertaining. I've drafted generation-skipping transfer tax language for trust agreements that had more literary merit. "The Eye of Argon" is better! If the CIA wants to get serious about "coercive interrogation" at Guantanamo Bay, they should translate Tree of Smoke into Arabic and read it aloud to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Posted by: Mike Morley at December 7, 2007 3:14 PM

Come on, we're not monsters

Posted by: Bryan at December 7, 2007 4:27 PM

The last book B.R. savaged this way was John Le Carre's bizarre pean to anti war and anti-globalism; Absolute Friends. He savaged Le Carre's whole style, including reinterpreting the very nature of Alec Leamas supposedly dispairing character in The Spy Who Came Over. One detail, that was not included was how the ending where the
supposed conspirators are caught; reflect on the fact that he character who leads them on this
'children's crusade' with fulsome paens to Arundat Roy and Naomi Klein; is in fact a CIA agent. As M. Night Shymalan might put it. What
a twist.

Posted by: narciso at December 7, 2007 10:01 PM