AMERICANS have probably learned more in the last three months about Liberia and Sierra Leone than in the previous 10 years. In the unrelieved darkness that comprises a particular Western imagining of Africa, there are swatches of a still deeper, more febrile black — Congo, Somalia, Uganda — territories seething with pint-sized killers or zealots, despots and miasmic jungle.
It’s fitting, with Ebola resurrecting man’s ancient fear of perilous incomers, to be reading and thinking about The Laughing Monsters. Johnson’s 11th novel is set in Sierra Leone and Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Works of fiction, the good ones at any rate, going at their own internal pace, indifferent to the sensationalism of news cycles, are theoretically better suited than today’s lurid news media to shining a humanizing light on far-off personages, families, and cultures, at reminding us of the banal truth that we are all humans under the skin.
For a couple of reasons, The Laughing Monsters is no corrective to the hysteria stirred up by a tropic epidemic, or to inchoate nativist fears. Literary fiction lacks the power it held to shift or mold popular imagination. No one writing today expects to arouse in an entire generation of Americans, as Papa Hemingway did, a romantic urge to go hunt big game, to sit and drink whiskey beneath a canopy while taking in the unsullied wildnesses of East Africa (although of course it’s easy, retrospectively, to overvalue how influential Hemingway was among all strata of society).
Monsters itself falls partly within that strain of American writing about Africa that deals in old tropes and equatorial fever dreams. More on this later.
There’s another, not entirely unrelated aspect, in which publication of The Laughing Monsters is well timed. I’m thinking of the recent awarding of the 2014 Nobel Literature prize to the Frenchman Patrick Modiano, and the petulance, indignation, and professed indifference that this long running snub of American letters sets off each year.
I’m quite sympathetic to Swedish critic Horace Engdahl’s remark about the insularity of American literature, which does not really “participate in the big dialogue of literature,” and is “too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world.”
I’ve got nothing against Roth and Pynchon, but, for all these authors’ playing with form and style, they’ve scarcely ever strayed in their work from western milieus.
Johnson is harder to situate, generationally and thematically, than many American writers. He’s a little in the vein of Russell Banks and Norman Rush in his willingness to trespass on African terrain. But he’s in some way more red-blooded, more Mailerish than either. And while he’s 10 years older than the current cohort of great white male novelists that includes Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and David Foster Wallace, Johnson is less well known. His body of work — fiction, poetry, plays — is more peripatetic and a little too chancy for mainstream acclaim. Short story writer David Means has described Johnson as the last of the hardcore American realist writers, but some of his works, like the 1985 post-nuclear novel Fiskadoro, clearly don’t belong in that category.
And there’s this, too, setting Johnson apart from many of the bold-faced names: he references the dreams and delusions of hardscrabble, dysfunctional America more than he does the neuroses of the gentrification set that serves as the subject of the contemporary great American novel.
Too often in American writing that references Africa there’s a whiff of the dark continent as a locus of the unshackling of man’s id. The beast is within us, these writers seem to suggest, but it takes Africa to let it free. When John Updike strayed from the well-worn path of New England adultery to write about African megalomania in The Coup (1978), the result was hammy and fevered. This tendency, I suspect, keeps me from picking up Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.
Johnson has previous experience with respect to writing this part of the world. Seek, his 2001 collection of essays, leads off with “The Civil War in Hell,” a piece of realist reportage on the last days in office of Liberian President Samuel Doe. And there’s also An Anarchist’s Guide to Somalia, the title of which is fairly self-explanatory.
The Laughing Monsters is a contemporary spy novel in which narrative feels secondary. Essentially, Nair, its protagonist, arrives in Freetown, Sierra Leone for a meeting with an old associate who drags him across the African continent in pursuit of shady deals that may make them rich. Thrown in for good measure: a wedding, and encounters with witch doctors and American black ops specialists.
Yet, in spite of a thinness of plot, Monsters is not a character study. We learn very little about what sort of men Roland Nair and Michael Adriko, his friend and associate, are. Nair speaks in his own voice but is particularly wispy, perhaps deliberately so, given that he’s a spy in the employ of NATO.
But with Johnson’s brisk prose, the faint scent of expat loucheness hanging over the Freetown scenes feels at moments like parody. Here’s Nair leaving the airport in Freetown: “At the Freetown dock I recognized […] a skinny old Euro named Horst, standing beside a hired car […] taking note of the new arrivals. As our vehicle passed him I slumped in my seat and turned my face away.”
There’s something in this sequence that’s a little James Bond. And, not having read Ian Fleming, I am referencing here the films (Roger Moore with his sullen, cruel mouth comes to mind). Then, in the very next paragraph, Johnson seems to be channeling Mickey Spillane: “Horst […] His first name was something like Cosmo but not Cosmo. Leo, Rollo. I couldn’t remember.”
There are moments in which Johnson captures the new, new Africa with especial skill. He’s written a description of a Guinness beer commercial that may be fictive but which nails precisely the “Africa rising” ethos:
An older brother returns home to the African bush from his successful life in the city. He’s drinking Guinness Draught with his younger brother in the sentimental glow of lamps they don’t actually possess in the bush. Big-city brother hands little bush brother a bus ticket: “Are you ready to drink at the table of men?”
And later, Nair, Adriko, and a third passenger, a woman, are speeding along a road in Uganda and their jeep hits someone, a woman on her way to market with a load of termite grubs on her head. “One of these women crossed our path, her right hand raised to steady the pan on her head, blocking half her sight […] she kept walking into the road […] and we hit her, we struck her down. I heard her say ‘uh!’ in a way I’ve never heard it said.”
“She wasn’t watching,” is Adriko’s angry reply to the collision. He is driving. Go back, go back, go back, the woman in the car urges, “but we wouldn’t go back, we couldn’t — not in Africa […] where running away from this was not a mistake.” Every detail of this is familiar: the heedlessness of rural pedestrians on roads with neither shoulder nor sidewalk; the still more momentous indifference of drivers and riders in four-wheel drive vehicles; the feeling, born out of a fear of the inscrutability of primitive folk, that stopping in such a place after such an incident is to invite a lynching.
Michael Adriko is someone Nair seems to both avoid and seek in Sierra Leone. Signs of the former’s presence are numerous, but no one can offer precise intelligence on his whereabouts. Nair, summoned to that country to meet Adriko, bides time, emailing his lover, who seems also to be his NATO handler. He engages in some cloak-and-dagger stuff involving Virtual Private Networks, Cruzer flash drives, and local finks in the employ of the CIA.
And one night he sends out in the small hours from his hotel room for a 15-year-old Ivorian sidewalk whore whom he glimpsed on arrival.
When the reader at last meets him, Adriko fits the reputation Nair and various Freetown interlocutors have attached to him: mercenary, hustler, deserter, martlet. His physicality repels and excites Nair at the same time. Adriko is some sort of super soldier linked to Mossad and the US Special Forces. It emerges later that “the African,” whose provenance is shrouded, has saved Nair’s life.
Reunion between the two men is glib, also faintly amorous. Nair greets Adriko with sarcasm in the lobby of a less amenable Freetown hotel where Adriko is resident:
“Thanks for meeting me at the airport.”
“I was there! Where were you? I watched everybody getting off the plane and I never saw you. I swear it!” He always lies.
“For goodness’ sake, Nair, your beard is gray!”
“And my hair is still black as a raven’s.”
“Do ravens have beards?” He had his feet under him now. “I like it.” Before I could stop him, he reached out and touched it.
Shortly thereafter Nair also meets a friend of Michael’s, “a striking woman, African, light skinned.” But the preposterously named Davidia St. Claire is actually a Coloradan, an American. In a sense, the novel begins here, or at least the plot begins here to fitfully advance, driven in part by a three-way flirtation among this white man, brown girl, and black man (who has himself “a dash of cream in the coffee”).
Davidia is Michael’s fiancée, and he intends to take her to Uganda to meet his clan. And there’s also some scheme for the two men to get rich off what might be diamonds, or heroin, or even uranium. Adriko is coy with details and Nair is skeptical. All the while, he’s pursuing his own deal via terse email communications with an interlocutor, Hamid.
The travelers fly to Uganda and pass westward through the relatively tranquil countryside toward the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the former Zaire — Africa’s dark heart. It is here that Monsters turns both surreal and predictable. There are set ups and double crossings along the road, spiked drinks, and allusions to the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Johnson throws in a couple of red herrings. On a napkin, Nair finds a doggerel written by Adriko that runs:
He’s my panda
He’s my teddy bear
They say things about him
But I don’t care
I’m your fan
Like Idi Amin, Adriko is a Kakwa, a big soldiering man from North Uganda. Blood, as we all know, calls to blood. And yet Adriko, the principal African of the novel, is a modern man of action, a sort of African James Bond whom Idris Elba would play on the screen. Adriko is resolute, indomitable, effective, even if partly crazed. He saves Nair and is in turn saved by him. Modern but clannish, his rootlessness is distinct from Nair’s own; there is more dasein in him, as if his Kakwa origins, removed as he is from them, are the source of his agency.
Johnson seems at once prone to and dismissive of tired essentialist tropes — the African’s unreflective belief in animist spirits and immiserated life that he nevertheless bears with docility, the deeply corrupted nature of African authority and institutions. The writer resorts to these clichés as a means, intermittently, of overturning them, but only so far.
There’s a fair bit of writing in which the writer’s tongue is surely thrust far into his cheek, interspersed with bits where it surely can’t be. The silliness doesn’t necessarily spoil the novel; I enjoyed it without ever feeling like I couldn’t put it down. My sense is that Johnson has found a backdrop against which he can write without self-consciousness. Are we meant to acknowledge that Africa turns white men — also rootless Africans like Adriko — crazy?
I had a suspicion that the novel held at least one Conradian moment and duly, it arrived. Separated from both Adriko and Davidia St. Claire, Nair escapes from an American special forces prison camp and follows a pygmy coffin maker to Adriko’s home region in Newada (New Water) Mountain.
At Newada a cutlass-wielding Adriko contends with a local witch woman, the also preposterously named La Dolce, who is surely Conrad’s Kurtz in modern guise: an emblem of the tyrant’s current, black face. The last sections of the book are recounted in epistolary form, Nair addressing Davidia, although he seems unsure of whether he loves her or his NATO handler, Tina.
La Dolce lives in a tree, from which she is lowered by means of a pulley system. She speaks near-fluent but unhinged English, and she appears to hold Adriko’s kinsfolk in a kind of spiritual thrall that he, the prodigal son, finds appalling.
“I’ll destroy this place,” Michael tells the witch woman. In the name of Christianity, he banishes her.
And La Dolce sits in her roped chair and makes “a winding motion […] she laughed and laughed while, by a system of pulleys anchored out of sight above […] she ascended into the boughs.”
Nair writes, “I watched the other [villagers] go, and I got the sense that Michael had triumphed here.”
So far, so good. The modern Africa has seen off the retrograde one. But there is still the matter of reconciliation between the two men, their dispute having everything and nothing to do with Davidia St. Claire, who never again appears in the narrative.
Johnson concludes the novel on an upbeat note that nevertheless carries strange echoes. Back in Freetown, Nair concludes his deal with Hamid, and he and Adriko, newly wealthy, close as brothers. They, somehow Spartan in their arrangements, charter a boat bound for who knows where. “Maybe back to Ghana. Maybe Senegal. There’s always Cameroon.”
Johnson seems to have come away with the assessment that the New Africa may be not so different from the old one. Still, the author’s removal of Davidia St. Claire from the narrative, the nonconsummation of her love for Adriko, even Nair’s feeling toward her, which is unreturned, made me wonder if she was unworthy of a future in this new Africa, with its glut of promise and possibility, which nevertheless requires hard men, men ready to drink at the table of men.
These ambiguities partly redeem what is an experiment by Johnson with form and subject. Monsters widens what is already an eclectic oeuvre without being one of the writer’s standouts. I suspect this is not precisely the sort of expansiveness the Nobel Judges hope to see from American writers. The monsters, I think, neither laugh nor weep.