AN army brat born in Munich and raised on US bases in the Philippines, Japan, and the outskirts of Washington D.C., Denis Johnson had seen the world before he published a word. He started pretty early though, with his first poetry collection at the age of 19, and has since written stage plays, crime thrillers, foreign correspondence, dirty-realist short stories and post-apocalyptic fictions, a monumental fugue of a Vietnam War novel, Tree Of Smoke, and a luminous Old West novella, Train Dreams.
Some back room intelligence analyst compiling a dossier on the author would be hard pressed to identify a consistent literary style or theme among those papers, let alone a coherent political or philosophical principle. Except to say that Johnson is clearly drawn to chaos and wreckage, and that it makes sense for him to be writing about 21st century Africa. Having previously reported from various failed and failing states across that continent (The Small Boy’s Unit, his Harper’s Magazine piece about trying to interview Charles Taylor, was a dynamite primer on Liberia circa 2000) Johnson now sends a fictional narrator eastward from Sierra Leone to Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Presumably set just before the recent outbreak of Ebola, The Laughing Monsters charts the haphazard progress of a Danish-American army captain named Nair, who arrives in Freetown on assignment for the Nato Intelligence Interoperability Architecture (NIIA).
His nominal mission is to spy on his old friend and former comrade Michael Adriko, a larger-than-life Congo-born US Special Forces attache who appears to have gone rogue, and may or may not be selling off a cache of enriched uranium from a downed Russian plane. Nair himself has something valuable to sell on the side – encryption codes for the secret military fibre-optic cables that the US has been laying under several West African nations. But the underlying purpose of his visit seems to be a kind of nihilistic tourism.
Operating in this region after 9/11, Nair apparently developed a taste for its sweaty, shadowy atmosphere of imminent catastrophe. “I’ve come back because I love the mess,” he confesses in one of his epistolary unsent emails to an unseen girlfriend and NIIA contact named Tina. “Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart.” In that sense, he gets what he came for.
Through the early chapters, Johnson seems to be on John Le Carre’s turf, or Graham Greene’s, as he starts to build his plot around the internecine agendas of the main players and a suspect supporting cast of British and French security agents, drunken Russian soldiers, renegade Israeli thugs and under-the-radar Chinese interests. Toward the middle of the novel, it begins to take the shape of a love triangle, as Nair falls for Adriko’s fiancee Davidia, the beautiful daughter of a Special Forces commander who quickly learns that she does not share either man’s idea of adventure. This leads to some uncharacteristically sloppy writing and borderline-unbearable dialogue. Here’s Nair attempting to steal her away: “I’ve known Michael for almost 12 years, and all this time I thought I was infatuated with him, and I was wrong. I’ve been … waiting in infatuation for you to materialise. For him to produce you, conjure you, bring you, fetch you.”
To be honest, Johnson has never been much for romance. Narrative is not really his strong suit either, though he seemed to have a tighter grip on the genre mechanics of his recent noir-tinged thriller Nobody Move. But he’s always great on human confusion and folly, which may be his only subject in the end. And this book only comes together when the wheels come off – the story itself delayed and derailed by knife-fights, traffic fatalities, the wild-card interventions of the Congolese Army and of course the CIA. An orderly novel would not be commensurate to Johnson’s vision of West and East Africa as breaking points for best laid plans and crackpot schemes, where even strong minds and callous consciences start to flicker like the intermittent power supply. “Many people keep watch,” notes Nair.
“Nobody sees. It takes a great deal to awaken their curiosity. NATO, the UN, the UK, the US – poker-faced, soft-spoken bureaucratic pandaemonium. They’re mad, they’re blind, they’re heedless, and not one of them cares … ” He and Adriko appear to reach a final reckoning at the latter’s home village, finding the population poisoned and demented by the chemicals used to extract gold and hydrocarbons, and a self-appointed queen who calls herself La Dolce demanding human sacrifices from her throne in a tree. But even a spell of insanity can’t completely divert them from fortune and glory. There’s a shade of Conrad here that shows the post-colonial world as no less dark than the days of Belgian rule – profiteers flood in and money flows out, leaving life so denuded of value as to seem a mirthless joke.
Denis Johnson gets it, and The Laughing Monsters might be best read as a horrible comedy. “After a while,” says one despondent Christian missionary, “everything’s funny.”