But the Colonel distrusts his superiors, resents the bureaucracy of the Washington establishment, and takes orders only from himself. His plans are limited only by his own imagination.
Should he lace the North Vietnamese tunnels with psychedelic drugs? Should he send his own double agent into North Vietnam? Right where it turns into a dream. We follow the exploits of Bill Houston a major character in Johnson's first novel, Angels and his younger brother James, who find that the same behavior that earns medals in Vietnam leads to prison back in the States. We unravel the complex relationship between Nguyen Hao, an operative for the Americans, and his Viet Cong friend Trung Than, in which the line between loyalty and betrayal becomes so blurred that every course of action is compromised.
We trace the path of a Kathy Jones, who comes to Southeast Asia as wife of a Christian missionary, but leaves as one more burnt out case, leaving behind her religious faith and almost everything else. But the path to recovery and redemption is always elusive in Tree of Smoke. Remember when they saved Private Ryan? Tree of Smoke is not that kind of story. But in its harrowing, relentless unfolding of a national tragedy made all too personal, it ranks among the finest war novels of our time. The New Canon focuses on great works of fiction published since These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time.
T he B est in F iction S ince As with all of Johnson's work—the stories in Jesus' Son , novels like Resuscitation of a Dead Man and Fiskadoro —the real point is the possibility of grace in a world of total mystery and inexplicable suffering. In Johnson's honest world, no one story dominates. For all the story lines, the structure couldn't be simpler: Readers familiar with the Vietnam War will recognize its arc—the Tet offensive 65 harrowing pages here ; the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK; the fall of Saigon, swift and seemingly foreordained.
Frequently bought together
Sands, known as the Colonel. Skip is mostly in the dark, awaiting direction, living under an alias and falling in love with Kathy while the Colonel deals in double agents, Bushmills whiskey and folk history. He's a soldier-scholar pursuing theories of how to purify an information stream; he bloviates in gusts of sincerity and blasphemy, all of it charming.
Dec 05, Jason Pettus rated it really liked it. My full review of this book is much longer than GoodReads' word-count limitations. Find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter. So before anything else, a little history lesson From the mids until World War II, the Asian country now known as Vietnam was in actuality controlled by France and operated as a colony; during WWII, then, the Japanese invaded the area so as to install a Vichy-style fascist government.
It was the Vietnamese, in fac My full review of this book is much longer than GoodReads' word-count limitations. It was the Vietnamese, in fact, who eventually rose up and ran this group out of the country at the end of the war, led and funded by local communists who were being secretly supported by Soviet Russia; at this point the French tried to come back in and re-establish colonialism, but the 'Viet Minh' were having none of it.
Tree of Smoke
That led to what's now known as the 'First Vietnam War,' or 'Indochina War' if you want to get technical, which lasted for roughly a decade and which the French backed secretly by US resources lost; it led in to a splitting of the country into a North and South Vietnam, with a referendum two years later that was supposed to politically reunify them again.
The referendum never happened, though, because of the US continuing to stockpile more and more military in the southern half of the country; it soon led to the 'Second Vietnam War,' the enemy now known as the Viet Cong, the war many more Americans are familiar with, the one that many people say we lost as well at the end of which was more about us giving up fighting, which is why it's contested whether we should call it "losing a war". And thus did the entirety of Vietnam become communist in the mid-'70s, which was kind of a disaster until when the country first embraced free-market capitalism; now in they're one of the economically fastest-growing countries on the planet, certainly of the so-called "third world," and last year hosted over three and a half million international tourists.
I bring you this little tutorial, of course, because you'll need it in order to get through the absolutely mindblowing Tree of Smoke , the latest novel by revered writer Denis Johnson, and a few weeks ago officially the recipient of this year's National Book Award.
It's one of those big books, you know, and by "big" I mean in a grand, old-skool, James Michener or Herman Wouk kinda way; a book with a dozen main characters, two dozen other minor ones, all of them scattered around the planet and coming to the same central core of a story from a dozen different backgrounds and mindsets. There are good things about such books and bad things; in this case, in my opinion, a lot more good than bad, but that's partly because I'm a big fan of these kinds of novels in the first place.
It's certainly one of those books that people love giving awards to, because it feels good to give an award to a book like this; it's a hefty one, not only emotionally and intellectually but also its sheer physical weight, something that makes you feel like you really accomplished something by making it all the way through. So why does Johnson's name ring a bell, you're thinking? It's quite true that, from the United States' perspective, the Second World War was the last conflict that could be considered a feel-good success.
Everything since has either yet to be concluded, or produced a stalemate or checkmate that provided, at best, a wan satisfaction; at worst, an inflamed and interminable bout of indigestion—and, of the latter, certainly none more painful and unsettling than those long years of struggle that encompassed the Vietnam War. To the nation that defended Sout It's quite true that, from the United States' perspective, the Second World War was the last conflict that could be considered a feel-good success.
To the nation that defended Southeast Asia from Japan's imperial dream in the mid-Forties it must have seemed that another glorious and successful partnership would be worked in ridding the area of the peril of expansionary communism; to have thus found themselves considered the aggressors, the imperialists, the baby-killers, worked some serious bad juju upon the mindset of America, one from which it took decades to recover its self-esteem; it has still to recover its equilibrium.
So it was that upon recent consideration after a long spell of banishment in the shelves, Tree of Smoke held little appeal for me—who wants to revisit that theatre of epic futility, especially when it has seemingly been mined, in film and in print, for all its worth? I thought this was really good. I wanted to love it, but I couldn't; I was afraid I might dislike it, but I didn't; it's a book that seems to have divided its readers into two passionate camps, both of whose arguments I can now appreciate—but I'm firmly aligned with its fans, holding this thick, smoky, filmic page-turner to be a flawed work of genius.
I didn't care for some of the plot decisions and turns that Johnson opted for, and I was occasionally tempted—though I never acquiesced—to start skimming where I sensed that Johnson was going off on another lengthy and meandering tangent; but neither of these negatives amount to much compared to Johnson's ability to pen fiction of a cinematic quality, in sweltering jungle and arid desert locations, that chronicles the destruction and dissipation and obsessions of various interconnected individuals during the turbid chaos of the Vietnam War.
His aptitude for flowing, verisimilar dialogue makes this a novel that is driven by its character's conversations; indeed, it is frequently jarring in that major situations or developments are delivered in succinct summaries at the onset of a new chapter, and the character's subsequent discourses the primary means of fleshing out the details of what exactly transpired and, more importantly, how its ripples will affect the large cast of characters who populate the pages. Although the story unfolds across select years of the Vietnam War—and concludes with one of its aftermath—its themes are applicable across all modern day conflicts: Johnson's true setting is the Fog of War , and how, beneath its vast, disorienting, and vivifying blanket, all manner of individuals—be they religious care workers, patriotic intelligence officers, Vietnamese regime supporters or communist subversives, raw rookie volunteer infantrymen, or legendary heroic figures—can and do lose their way, become corrupted or degraded or upended or abraded to the degree that they no longer recognize themselves or the combination of means and ends that have seized control of their waking lives.
This is a hallucinatory, smothering, violent demesne, with a CIA that is fractured, divided, and working out disparate and competing operations that break both the law and its agents' spirits; while the army is presented as a disorganized and chaotic presence, an arm that allows its soldiers the opportunity to engage in fucking up the Vietnamese, channeling their energies into a murderous violence that ofttimes slips beyond the control of a unit's officers.
War is both a hellish nightmare and an ideal and exciting testing ground for men, particularly when they experience it young; every character—but one—eagerly anticipates entering Vietnam, each with various idealizations of what they are there to achieve and how they desire to implement these goals—and each will see these desires crumble, idealizations turn into doubts—everything become shambolic and corrosive.
These individuals came into the war with the expectation of having the abstractions that etiolated their lives given definitive form, become reality—but the truth of the matter is that what reality had existed for them was stretched and thinned out, become abstract. Southeast Asia is a sweltering, humid, liquid environment, ripe for dark nights of the soul and diseases of both the flesh and the spirit. The bifurcation of the patient and enduring natives—having cast off the French and now chary of this new power arrived upon their shores—and what they desire for their sorely tested homeland, and the energized, well-intended Americans, with their competitive scheming and convoluted plotting always on the verge of breaking apart into warlordism, is nicely handled.
The story is driven by the trio of William "Skip" Sands, a CIA agent assigned to a Psy-Ops unit headed by his paternal uncle, The Colonel—a larger-than-life legend whose exploits prior to, during, and after the Second World War have taken on a mythological status—and the latter's perfervid and mindfuckery-minded disciple, Jimmy Storm, a sergeant on loan from the US Army. The Colonel has commandeered an Army platoon, a Vietnamese village and adjacent mountain-top Landing-Zone, and a substantial amount of bureaucratic interest and rivalry in his effort to implement a convoluted and precarious scheme to shatter the North Vietnamese Will-To-Fight at the very highest level.
Riding escort duty is the intermingled tale of the Houston brothers—Bill, who never sets foot in Vietnam, though—or perhaps because—he is marked by early death experiences; and his younger brother James, an aimless teenager trapped in the dead-end, blue-collar tedium of Phoenix, Arizona, who views service in the war as an opportunity to effect some mayhem whilst collecting a steady paycheque and escape the stifling confines of an existence that scares him—and a spirited nurse for an Orphan's NGO, Kathy Jones, who provides a bit of Canadian fervor and the Calvinistic determinism that threatens to either damn or absolve these characters up front, depending upon which angle of Hell you viewed them from.
There is a long introduction that takes place within the Philippines, a prelude to the coming experience of Vietnam—and besides being a brilliantly detailed set piece, it completely and expertly delineates how both Americans and natives will be ruined by their immersion in a conflict without clear-cut borders, endowed with blurry endpoints and enframed by dubious philosophies. This is bookended with a lengthy epilogue in which the reader gets provided with snapshots of the destruction meted out by the passing of the years, the way this terrible tropical conflict has infected its character's lives, and how one particular mythological obsession has seared itself into the flesh; the cooling words of redemptive hope that drop the curtain after seven hundred and two pages offer a brief palliative to these terrible burns—but a palliative only: View all 11 comments.
Jun 17, Phillip rated it it was ok. Like many of you, I can't figure out why this book won the NBA. But as a reader of hundreds of books on Vietnam and a three year all expenses paid visit there during the war, I didn't find insight into a darn thing, nothing new or meaningful. And I can turn and look at dozens of books on my shelf which are all of the above. And they didn't win squat. Obviously, some of you did. Some of the comments few actual 'revie Like many of you, I can't figure out why this book won the NBA.
Some of the comments few actual 'reviews' are fascinating.
Review: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson | Books | The Guardian
Those liking it seem to be more vocal about ending all wars I'm trying to stay away from current politics than those who disliked it. A couple of the 'reveiwers' showed real ignorance about the VN war and the returning vet.
- Budgeting for the Stay at Home Mom or Single Income Family (Mrs. Pinchpennys Guide to Life).
- Public Relations As Activism: Postmodern Approaches to Theory & Practice (Routledge Communication Series).
- Loving Chloe: A Novel.
- MORE BY DENIS JOHNSON;
- An American Soldier Protesting Bad Treatment to Women, Children & the poor (Women, children & the poor: STOP THE BAD TREATMENT! Book 2)?
And a number were 'miffed' that Johnson had changed genre without telling them. That's why I enjoy reading them. So all in all, maybe that's why the selection committees liked it. Of course it is often a kiss of death to compare a novel to great fiction I'm thinking The Quiet American comparisons. Grahame Greene is a tough act to follow and if that were my only comparison, I would think TOS a poor nephew. Authors usually cannot control what a publisher or critic will compare his work to, and have to suffer the slings and arrows nevertheless it happened to me on my first novel and some of the 'reviews' made me consider the witness protection program yet that novel was quite successful.
So put me down in the 'didn't really like it' column, but I can't bring myself to give it only one star. That's for Harry Potter or Patterson books. View all 3 comments. Feb 08, Alex rated it really liked it Recommends it for: It's a novel about the human effects of fighting for abstractions. It's about forgiveness and salvation, about guilt itself in the face of the unswerving trueness of death. It's about what we do to the world in the process of doing what we can for it.
The book's gyre encompasses five Americans and one Canadian, each bound in his or her own ways to the land and people of Vietnam. The two most central characters are the Colonel - self-mythologizing man of action, old-school war hero, the eponymous Tree of Smoke - and his nephew, CIA spook Skip Sands - the young man who alternately views himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American. In these two resides a real, unironic feeling of righteousness for the fight against Communism, a yearning for the kind of American destiny that we can all get behind.
Tree of Smoke is in one sense a story of how this kind of loyalty plays out in a bloody, treacherous, and bureaucratically convoluted jungle occupation. But the totality is beyond the scope of synopsis, and the fog of war lifts only with time. This is a book I admire. The language is thrilling and refreshing, the palette constantly revitalizing itself.
And the tenderness with which Johnson places these characters on his pages reveals an author honestly probing for truths, an artist whose only agenda is to make us see clearly through a malarial fog. Where he succeeds, the fact that his characters never achieve such unburdened vision becomes more than plot device; it seems more like a tragedy of history. View all 4 comments. Dec 04, Dennis D. I don't usually read others' reviews before writing one of my own, but I had to in this case, because I figured I must have been reading a different book than everyone else.
I rarely give up on a book, but I came close with this one a number of times; for instance, at page , , I forged on, buoyed by all the acclaim and my ow I don't usually read others' reviews before writing one of my own, but I had to in this case, because I figured I must have been reading a different book than everyone else.
I forged on, buoyed by all the acclaim and my own inability to just give up and move on. So give me my damned cookie, I finished the thing. The novel in a nutshell is largely about Skip Sands, a CIA trainee working for the military in Vietnam during the war, and assigned to his uncle, the legendary Colonel serious echoes of the deranged Col. And solider Jimmy Storm. The priest, Father Callahan As does CIA operative Voss. And a CIA assassin.
Yes, there were a lot of characters and storylines; some intersected, and some didn't, and it was very chaotic, just like war itself. War is hell, I get it. But does reading about it have to be hell, too? Situations and circumstances struck me as wholly unoriginal. Denis Johnson reportedly spent a long time writing this, so I have to assume that these stylistic choices were his.
I thought it was meandering, unfocused, and in need of some serious editing. Having said all of that, there were large chunks of this narrative that I really liked. Some of the prose is truly beautiful. The parallels that Johnson is making to the Iraq war are unmistakable and unnerving. View all 9 comments.
Aug 30, Janet rated it it was amazing. Line for line precise, vivid, achingly beautiful, it's the interwoven stories of a double handful of characters beginning in the Phillipines just as Kennedy is assassinated, and moving through the Vietnam experience ending in the 's as the last characters are mopped u Another book from Les Plesko's No Stopping Train incredible book list, Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke almost reaches the level of literary sublimity and transcendence of Robert Stone's quintessential Vietnam book Dog Soldiers. Line for line precise, vivid, achingly beautiful, it's the interwoven stories of a double handful of characters beginning in the Phillipines just as Kennedy is assassinated, and moving through the Vietnam experience ending in the 's as the last characters are mopped up Skip teeters, in Johnson's words, between the Quiet American and the Ugly American, becoming just the fucking American--that is, looking for legend but fully becoming the mess that Vietnam was.
Contrasting to Sands, who struggles with the essential issues of that war, who ponders, who sifts and thinks, are the Houston brothers, first Bill, and then the rougher, cruder copy, younger brother James. Who don't think, they act--and how the war is their undoing as well as it is Sands'. The only thing that keeps this book from the heaven that is Dog Soldiers is the way the narrative is scattered among so many characters, including Sands, the two Houstons, a nurse with a missionary husband who is murdered by blowgun in the Phillipines and perhaps on the orders of hte CIA, Jimmy Storm, the legendary uncle's crazy right hand man, and a number of the vietnamese characters to boot It is very difficult for a multiple protagonist book to squeeze down to a really resonant ending.
But aside from this intrinsic and inescapable flaw, this is breath-held fiction for pages. What verbal firepower, what mimicry, what tension. The first scene, in which hapless Bill Houston shoots a monkey, will burn in my brain for life. For those who have been asking, the book list is at www. View all 10 comments. Feb 17, Caitlin rated it it was amazing Shelves: You are either going to love it or hate.
Claimed as the "Catch of our times" - and given that the Heller novel is my all-time favorite - I suppose it is inevitable that I would love it. It is a gripping novel that opens with Kennedy assassination in It follows Skip Sands, a "Tree of Smoke", in my opinion, is an all-or-nothing kind of book. It follows Skip Sands, a serviceman who spends a majority of the book undercover and completely confused by his mission and yet steadfast in his support of Vietnam; and the Houston brothers, mostly the younger James, and their enlistment and experiences serving in Vietnam.
As a Vietnam-era novel, Johnson allows a lot of the usual subjects to move the plot. We see the contrast in Sands' unwavering support of the effort versus his mother's question of justice; and minor characters such as Kathy who questions God versus the Houston brother's mother who is absolutely certain of God's support of the war effort.
Naturally, given the last two especially, the religious and thus moral conflict come into play. With the various backgrounds, races and genders that scope the novel, everyone is forced to try and find answers to a war that raises a lot of questions. Though present, I didn't find the religious aspect to be heavy-handed but instead thought it offered a necessary frame for why characters held the opinions they did.
With no clear hero and no clear answer to questions raised, it makes sense that Johnson's novel garners a lot of negative reviews. We are forced to confront the unanswered questions and moral ambiguity that are natural elements to the human condition. An amazing read but not for a person looking for a light read.
I read this in paperback form and despite its intimidating size the pages flew by. Literally could not put it down. View all 5 comments. Oct 14, W rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: Compare a writer messing around with his experience and craft and an author who has come under the full blown power of his pen.
I will wait until a second reading, but we may have our first great American novel since Faulkner and, in a certain sense, Dreiser. It leads them through their forty years of wandering the desert. There are lots of levels that can be mined in this book. Pay no attention to critics who are trying the crack the book over their self-possessed hubris. It will be awhile before anybody masters it. Apr 22, Krista rated it liked it Shelves: And who could say the delirious old warrior didn't grapple after actual truths?
Intelligence, data, analysis be damned; to hell with reason, categories, synthesis, common sense. All was ideology and imagery and conjuring. Fires to light the minds and heat the acts of men. And cow their consciences. Fireworks, all of it — not just the stuff of history, but the stuff of reality itself, the thoughts of God — speechless and obvious: I always feel the need to explain myself for context when I review an American-centric book like Tree of Smoke , so here goes again: As a Canadian, the Vietnam War hasn't bound me to my fellow citizens with communal psychic scars — I didn't lose an older brother to the VC, I don't have a crazy and legless Uncle-Lieutenant-Dan, I was raised in the smug knowledge that we didn't get involved in the Asian quagmire; that, rather, Canada provided safe haven for the teenage American draft dodger with the unlucky lottery number — so while I'm not uninterested in stories about Vietnam, they're no more personal to me than stories about the Irish Troubles or the Third Balkan War, both of which I also lived through; it can all be fascinating history, certainly worthy of literary treatment, but it's not particularly my own intimately felt history.
I also lived through the Iran-Contra Affair, the training of the Afghan Mujahideen, and Saddam Hussein's missing Weapons of Mass Destruction, so I'm unsurprised by a storyline involving covert CIA operations and how their intelligence-gathering influences American policy; or how this preordained policy influences the intelligence that's gathered. So, really, a book like this comes down to the writing for me, and overall, that was an uneven experience: Other readers seem to be of two minds as well: And by contrast, B.
Meyers wrote in The Atlantic: One closes the book only with a renewed sense of the decline of American literary standards. I feel really wishy-washy in the face of so much passion to award three stars, but I wasn't excited into either love or hate territory by Tree of Smoke ; I can neither defend nor condemn it winning the National Book Award for I really liked that we watch Skip change through the years — him becoming more cynical in his jungle villa as the tumblers of Bushmills and servant-cooked Beef Noodle Soup makes his regular uniform of bathing trunks and boxcut dress shirt grow ever tighter — and his remove from both the fighting and the experience back home feels a fresh slant on the war: Martin Luther King had been killed.
Robert Kennedy had been killed. The North Koreans still held an American naval vessel and her crew. The Marines besieged at Khe Sanh, the infantry slaughtering the whole village of My Lai, hirsute, self-righteous idiots marching in the streets of Chicago. Among the hairy ones the bloody failure of January's Tet Offensive had resounded as a spiritual victory. And then in May a second country-wide push, feebler, but nearly as resonant.
He devoured Time and Newsweek and found it all written down there, yet these events seemed improbable, fictitious.
In six or seven months the homeland from which he was exiled had sunk in the ocean of its future history. I was led to Denis Johnson by his short story Dirty Wedding which I discovered and loved in My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead , and it was the gritty realism of the experience of the underclass that wowed me in that story, so it's unsurprising that he includes here the war experience of a pair of brothers from the poor side of Phoenix — both of whom joined up underage to escape their final, futile year of high school — and I could almost argue that their unglamourous and pointless war stories Bill Houston was discharged from the Navy for fighting and desertion and his younger brother James committed speed-fueled, blood-soaked Recon with the Infantry and their States-side aftermath is the real heart of the book.
We also follow some Vietnamese nationals: There is a German assassin and a Philippino mercenary and we also meet Kathy Jones: Kathy also hooks us with Skip a few times over the years, and is sanguine about the attitudes of the American soldiers she meets: Well, you were sad about the kids for a while, for a month, two months, three months. You're sad about the kids, sad about the animals, you don't do the women, you don't kill the animals, but after that you realize this is a war zone and everybody here lives in it.
You don't care whether these people live or die tomorrow, you don't care whether you yourself live or die tomorrow, you kick the children aside, you do the women, you shoot the animals. And there is the storyline of the Colonel's aide, Jimmy Storm. Storm is a bit of a madman — like he's tripping on acid, constantly looking for ephemeral sensations and hidden connections — and when he learns in that the Colonel might still be alive and living in Thailand the Colonel was said to have died during the war — of a heart attack?
Of an assassin's blade? Maybe he faked his death to infiltrate the north? From the trees all around came the waterfall sound of scrabbling claws and the curses of demons driven into the void. The jungle itself screamed like a mosque. Storm lay naked on his back and watched the upward-rushing mist and smoke in the colossal firelight and waited for the clear light, for the peaceful deities, the face of the father-mother, the light from the six worlds, the dawning of hell's smoky light and the white light of the second god, the hungry ghosts wandering in ravenous desire, the gods of knowledge and the wrathful gods, the judgment of the lord of death before the mirror of karma, the punishments of the demons, and the flight to refuge in the cave of the womb that would bear him back into this world.
I can only evaluate my own experience — and I hope that by the inclusion of such long quotes I have given a sense of that experience — and I arrive at the wishy-washy: Tree of Smoke neither blew my mind nor bored me to tears. It felt too long, but I liked the sentences; I didn't really learn anything, but it didn't belabour the familiar; I'm not unhappy to have read it, but I didn't really need to read it. Jul 29, K. Absolutely rated it liked it Recommended to K.
With Philippines just an ocean away and with its then several US Military Bases, the country became the launching pad of US strikes and attacks against the Vietcong and their Communist allies. Tree of Smoke is a novel by American author Denis Johnson. I have no doubt that it deserves both. Since I normal Vietnam War Since I normally read while in bed, I had to read few pages at a time as my rheumatic hands could not hold the book for so long.
However, I kept on reading and in fact, felt sad when I finally closed the book last night. Though painful and sad particularly because of the ending, it was a worthwhile read. Philippines is the setting of the first quarter of the book and it is so interesting to know that Johnson really spent a lot of time knowing and incorporating details about life, places, names and practices here in the Philippines.
It was an un-biased and almost accurate depiction of our country. Almost, because there are some small details that I guess are too minor for him to pay attention to, so, for me, given the total scheme of things, they are forgivable. As in any war novels, the battlefield scenes are mind-blowing. However, Johnson only spent a few pages on it.
Although he spent years in Vietnam during the war, he did not go to the battlefield. Rather, the other characters, like brothers, Bill and James Houston who actually fought and died in the war. Their stories prior to joining the war and their communication to their loves ones and to each other while in the different places in Vietnam are the ones that really hit me in this novel.
Though the title can easily be an allusion to atomic bomb, the Tree of Smoke here refers to the secret operation that involves Sands. There are several references in the novel to the title phrase, which has Biblical origins in three cited passages: Song of Solomon 3: Thank you, friend for making me buy this! Oct 14, Josh rated it it was amazing. This is one hell of a novel. In my opinion it was worth the time, and deserving of the accolades it received. By page I could not put it down. Prior to that it was hit and miss but mostly very readable. One of the charac This is one hell of a novel.
One of the characters is driven slightly crazy before we ever meet her, but as she goes further from reality, she begins to quote the theologian Calvin to Skip Sands. She describes part of the ideology and I'm paraphrasing here as such: Those in hell don't know it. In fact, can't know it, for if they knew they were in hell they would derive some comfort from the knowledge that the suffering would be eternal.
This line comes relatively early in the novel sometime in the first pages and I believe it highlights a theme--the destructive power of misplaced hope. Each of the characters succumbs to this The novel raises questions about redemption as well. Is it even possible? Do we deserve it? In the end, I found myself wondering what the Tree of Smoke really is.