‘It’s a Denis Johnson book’ – The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

djlmOne thing I’m starting to realise as I read each new Denis Johnson book as it appears: each Denis Johnson book gives you the opportunity to learn how to read a Denis Johnson book. The Laughing Monsters is the tenth book by Johnson I’ve read. In some ways it reminds me of his dystopia Fiskadoro. In others, it reminds me of his nonfiction, Seek. I’m told, in some lights it can be seen as a companion piece to Tree of Smoke, which I’ve yet to do battle with and come away from with the book completed (I’ve tried a couple of times but I’m not sophisticated enough yet, although I’ll persevere). I also think it may be his funniest (and funnest) book since Jesus’ Son: despite the occasional ugliness and stupidity of the world his characters occupy in The Laughing Monsters, this is best viewed, imho, as a scary comedy, a brittle, edgy, modern political fable of sorts. Even though it’s a realistic book to all intents and purposes, it is at the same time a cartoon, unravelling against a Hanna Barbera-like repeating frieze of desert and scrub and shanty town.

Our narrator is Captain Roland Nair, a character with more than a shade of Nobody Move‘s Jimmy Luntz about him. We meet as he arrives in Sierra Leone, ducking and diving to avoid people he’s keen on not being seen by. There are duelling explanations as to why he is where he is: he’s here to meet with Michael Adriko, a man he has known for a long time, a man who has summoned him, who may be joking or who may have a good reason for inviting him; he’s also, possibly, looking to sell on something to the highest bidder, traitorously; and maybe, just maybe, he’s still acting in the capacity of agent to report on Adriko, although we learn, as we go, that he isn’t what you would call the most respectful of employees. He’s certainly not someone we can trust entirely. He’s shifty, restless, knowledgeable when it comes to the secret worlds that intelligence operatives move through, hidden computer terminals in the basements of seemingly innocuous storefronts, code words, acronyms abound. If you are familiar with certain Conrad novels or certain novels by Graham Greene, you’ll wonder, as I did, if The Laughing Monsters is satire or homage. Maybe it’s both.

Nair meets up with Adriko and learns that Adriko is in love, or so he says, and wants to travel to a small village to be wed. Along the way, quite possibly, there will be a deal that may or may not involve enriched uranium that may or may not have been found in the cargo of a plane that went down. A journey is made – in fact, the main thrust of the novel is this journey – a journey of mishaps, accidents, inconsiderate violence, abductions, hunger and eventually interrogations. Nair falls in love with Adriko’s fiancé Davidia. But he is also writing, sometimes, to Tina, a woman he possibly briefly thought he loved. There is a lurching, misguided love triangle aspect to parts of the book. But it’s one aspect of a book shaped like a fragment of quartz. By the time you reach a funeral held for a group of dead children, the funeral crowd ‘chanting and moving in a zombie trance’, you’ll realise that the last thing you could call this was a love story of any stripe. The action becomes more and more phantasmagoric, the introduction of a village wise woman called La Dolce given to yelling

“Can you stop God? – Can you stop God? What about you? – Can you stop God? No!! You cannot!!! And now God is angry that you have not sacrificed. I know this because I am God!”

the last straw in some respects. Don’t come here with an expectation of answers, or sense.  The Laughing Monsters is an experience you give yourself up to, an experience you submit yourself to, an experience that is possibly best enjoyed if you surrender yourself to its odd currents. And it does have odd currents. You read the following:

“”We talk about how the world has changed since the Twin Towers went down. I think you could easily say the part that’s changed the most is the world of intelligence, security and defense. The world powers are dumping their coffers into an expanded version of the old Great Game. The money’s simply without limit, and plenty of it goes for snitching and spying. In that field, there’s no recession.”

you could be mistaken for thinking this is Johnson trying his hand at DeLillo, the way he tried his hand at McCarthy with Nobody Move, or Woodrell with Train Dreams. But the intelligence angle aside, The Laughing Monsters is resolutely un-DeLillo-like. The Laughing Monsters feels like a tall tale, a fabulation, a confabulation. Here’s Nair in the midst of an interrogation:

“”I’ve been telling so many lies and listening to so many lies until I don’t know what’s true and what’s false. And we’re in Africa, you realise” – shut up, shut up, I told myself, shut up – “and you realize it’s all myths and legends here, and lies, and rumors. You realise that.” I bit down in my tongue and that worked.”

This isn’t a book that sets out to take you from one place to another; this is a book that misleads you.  Every time you think you have it worked out (‘ah, so it’s that kind of book’), it wrongfoots you (‘ah, it’s not that kind of book’); until you’re left wondering just what kind of book it is. And there’s only one answer to that: it’s a Denis Johnson book.

Any Cop?: Strange to think at this late point in the history of the world that Denis Johnson isn’t more of a household name than he is. The Laughing Monsters is probably unlikely to change that but for us Denis Johnson fans there is much here to enjoy.


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