“I’VE COME BACK because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart.” So says Roland Nair, the half-Danish, half-American narrator of Denis Johnson’s new novel, The Laughing Monsters. It would be easy (and perhaps a little lazy) to ascribe the above sentence to the author himself, who, like Roland, is back in Africa for the first time since the bloodstorms, the ferocious and genocidal civil wars of the 1990s. As a journalist, Johnson reported on some of the worst atrocities befalling the continent, but until now he had not used the material for fiction.
Four years ago, before beginning to write my third novel (partly set in Uganda), I spent six months reading everything about Africa I could get my hands on. If you think atrocity and horror are fascinating and repellent in equal measure, there is no better subject; yet even horror turns anodyne from prolonged exposure, and I soon got bored with this particular niche of misery journalism. There was one piece of writing, however, which stood out from the rest, and became, for me, an illuminating metonym for Africa itself. It’s an article from Johnson’s collection Seek detailing his visit to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, during that country’s complex and increasingly bloody civil war. Johnson and other journalists are taken to the headquarters of Prince Johnson (no relation), one of the militia leaders who were contesting the capital. Denis Johnson describes entering the vast presidential palace to find himself being regaled by a guitar-strumming Prince Johnson, perched on his throne and crooning the reggae hymn “Rivers of Babylon.” Once the song is over, Prince Johnson greets the gathered journalists. When someone asks what happened to his predecessor, he shows them a video, shot in that very room, of the torture of the former president, Samuel Doe. Prince Johnson is seen interrogating Doe on the video, repeatedly asking him where he’s hidden the money. Doe pleads ignorance and Prince Johnson loses his patience. He cuts off Doe’s ears and makes the former president eat them. The video ends and Prince Johnson asks the journalists if they have any further questions. Thus Africa, with its dark history and otherworldly sense of ritual, is the perfect place for Johnson’s particular ability to mix surrealism, horror, and an almost psychedelic sense of grace in the same paragraph.
Discussing Monsters with the Yale Literary Magazine, Johnson said: “It’s kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene. I told my editor […], ‘I’m not trying to be Graham Greene. I think I actually am Graham Greene.’” This may, at first, seem a peculiar statement from one of our most highly acclaimed contemporary authors, a winner of the National Book Award, yet Johnson has always been one of those literary novelists, like Greene, who isn’t afraid of using genre as both structuring principle and narrative engine in his work.
Johnson’s third novel, The Stars at Noon, featured a journalist lost in the moral morass of mid-1980s Central America. It was his first attempt at writing a Greene novel, and not a wholly successful one at that. It may be interesting to note that Johnson’s best works — Train Dreams and Jesus’ Son — were the two novels of his that weren’t originally conceived of as novels — one was a short story that lingered past its limit and the other a collection of hallucinatory vignettes. It’s almost as if when Johnson’s setting out to write a novel, he tries too hard and, often, literally loses the plot.
In recent years, genre has bled even further into Johnson’s work. Resuscitation of A Hanged Man featured a suicidal PI as the main character. Already Dead begins with the protagonist asking a hit man to kill his wife. Johnson’s last novel, Nobody Move, his most sincere take on the genre yet, was a terse heist thriller that would have made Elmore Leonard or George V. Higgins proud.
So it should come as no surprise that one of our most eminent novelists would turn his hand to the spy thriller. And, given Johnson’s past interests, no surprise he should choose this setting. The chaos and color of Africa have long been a lure for novelists, from Hemingway to Greene to Caputo. There’s something about the madness and anarchy that appeals to certain authors — Africa allows one to write on a broader, quasi-Shakespearean, canvas.
The Laughing Monsters begins with Roland Nair arriving back in Sierra Leone after a 10-year absence. “I’m a little drunk,” he says on landing in Freetown, “because I think in West Africa it’s best always to be just a tiny bit that way.” As the sun slides over the garbage-strewn streets of the city, Roland looks for an old buddy of his, Michael Adriko — a man around whom myths and legends coalesce like the early morning mist coming in off the jungle. Was he really trained by US marines? Is he the leader of a rebel army? Or a deserter from a UN force hunting Joseph Kony?
Ten years ago, Roland and Michael made money together during the civil war and Roland hopes to resuscitate the partnership. Roland is also working (or maybe not) for NATO intelligence, tasked to find Michael and report back on his activities. Early on, Johnson introduces the theme of bifurcated loyalties, a trope that keeps refracting throughout the novel. We never know if Roland is genuinely looking for his friend or whether he’s spying on him. To further muddy the waters, Roland has his own agenda in selling state secrets (locations of fiber-optic cables, locations of CIA safe houses) to the highest bidder.
Roland finally reconnects with his friend. Michael introduces him to his fiancée, the statuesque African-American Davidia, and asks Roland to be his best man at their upcoming wedding. The catch is Michael wants to marry Davidia in his home village, at Newada Mountain, deep in the contested bloodlands of the Congo / Uganda border country. Roland is happy to go with the flow even though he suspects Michael has ulterior motives. Roland’s only concern is that he’s back in three weeks to complete his sale of secrets, take the money, and disappear.
Roland, Michael, and his fiancée fly to Uganda and travel up the war-torn spine of the country. Michael finally tells Roland why he’s really brought him here. He has a scam worked out to sell fake enriched uranium to a South African buyer possibly working for Mossad. The almost farcical horror of the doomed plans Michael proposes does not, surprisingly, deter Roland. Though he knows the scheme will fall apart, he acquiesces, partly because madness and doom are what Roland’s really looking for in Africa, and partly because this is a peculiar sort of buddy novel. Roland recognizes that Michael, like him, is also an outcast from his own people, and their partnership turns into a sort of African Fear and Loathing, a folie à deux in which they egg each other on into their true selves.
Once across the border into Congo, they are captured by the Congolese Army and handed over to US intelligence agents at a command post in the bush. The spooks have asked Roland to betray Michael — to find him and give them his location so they can kill him with a drone strike. The spooks, listening in to Michael and Roland’s conversations, have fallen for the scam, believing Michael is proliferating nuclear material. Roland goes on the run and hitchhikes across the desolation of northern Uganda. He finally reaches Newada Mountain and finds Michael engaged in a bizarre duel with the queen of the village, an ancient, riddled crone who reigns from a high swing perched halfway up a gargantuan tree. This is the best scene in the book and also the most Johnsonian — a weird, surreal plunge into ancient rites and hallucinogenic mystery. The novel ends with Michael and Roland as fugitives, dreaming of new schemes in ever more dangerous countries.
While the synopsis of The Laughing Monsters marks it out as a thriller, I’m not so sure it really is one. All the ingredients are there, but Johnson isn’t aiming for an edge-of-your-seat page-turner. His goals are both more modest and more ambitious, and the novel rapidly turns into a sub-Saharan Catch-22. By eschewing the heroism, grandeur, and moral clarity of the traditional war novel and replacing it with a Kafkaesque farce where madness is the only sane option, Heller’s book has become the template for most 21st-century war novels. (Someone should do a study of war novels over the last hundred years and what they reflect about our changing relationship toward carnage and representation.)
The Laughing Monsters is, ultimately, about reality, myth, and outright lies. Johnson has always been interested in those moments when the thin skin of the world breaks and we are ushered, unprepared, into another realm. “Reality is not a fact,” Michael says at one point. “Reality is an impression, a belief. Any magician knows this.” Later, Roland states: “Michael’s truth lives only in myth. In the facts and details, it dies.” This begins to serve as an encompassing metaphor for Africa itself, where myth is more potent than reality, and someone like Charles Taylor can win a Liberian election with the campaign slogan: “He killed my ma. He killed my pa. But I will still vote for him.”
But Johnson’s sights are set higher than simply Africa. The chaotic plot and ever-changing allegiances of the characters work as a neat metaphor for post-9/11 intelligence, where the enemy of your enemy might not be your friend and you never quite know who you’re dealing with. “Since 9/11, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business,” one character says. “An industry. A lucrative one.”
Roland is an archetypal Johnson protagonist: passive, suicidal, gripped by delirium and religious yearnings. He is a man with no home and split loyalties, a stranger to himself and to those around him. In this, he is the perfect spy. He also shares a desire for blackouts and wild intoxication with many of Johnson’s antiheroes and spends the course of the novel consuming everything from the delightfully named baboon whiskey to shots of alcohol squeezed out of tiny plastic sachets.
Johnson’s Africa is depicted without the usual travel-writer sunglasses. There are no striking animals or stunning sunsets, only rolling sewage, child prostitutes, squalid towns, festering swamps, and malarial moons. There is no hope and no possibility of regeneration in this Africa where only the most insane schemes have a chance of making it. Johnson paints the blighted burnt-out ruins of a continent with cool, precise prose. This isn’t Greene’s Africa nor Kapuściński’s, but a modern Dantean hell; though it does share with Greene’s a sense of languid dissipation, torpor and doubt, and the theme of men traveling to Africa in order to commit an honorable form of suicide. At one point, when captured by the Congolese Army, Roland, almost with a sigh of relief, admits that he has been taken by “people who would either bring order to my affairs in a prison or murder me and solve my life.”
Johnson is known for his luminous prose — he was a published poet many years before his first novel came out — but, recently, he has stripped back his language, turning it into a sparse and coldly analytical tool. The Laughing Monsters, in particular, has none of the baroque sentences or dazzling lyrical spurts that burst out of the pages of Train Dreams and Already Dead. In this respect (and others) The Laughing Monsters most closely resembles Johnson’s messy Vietnam epic, Tree of Smoke, another book about changing loyalties, jungles, and ill-advised schemes.
The novel’s main problem for me is that it’s not quite sure what it wants to be — a thriller, a languid Greene-ian meditation on mortality, or a Beckett-like farce about modern spying. Though the novel bears some similarities with Robert Littell’s Legends and Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim, it has none of the complexity or architecture of the modern thriller. Conversely, a thriller has to be more grounded in reality for its flights of fancy to work, and long narrative has never been Johnson’s strong point. The story here is episodic, which can sometimes make for a jarring read, yet ultimately serves to enforce Johnson’s underlying metaphor. The Laughing Monsters may be minor Johnson and so-so espionage, but it’s still more intelligent, flat-out gonzo, and hilariously trenchant than pretty much anything else you’ll read this year.