The Laughing Monsters is a curious novel. Denis Johnson describes it as a “literary thriller,” which it technically is. A tale of derring-do, chicanery, and treason, it feels particularly apposite in the immediate geopolitical moment. Its main characters are parasites on the frenzy accompanying the current scramble for Africa. But it is an elusive work. It reminded me of those novelty palm-card portraits of Jesus whose holographic eyes close, open, and follow you around depending on how you tilt the image.
Which is to say that I think there are two books here, unhappily married, but each meriting serious review. It’s a surprise, what Johnson has undertaken this time.
Johnson isn’t easy to place as a writer, partly because he is so vagarious. Among his many works are poetry, plays, intensely written journalism, screenwriting, fiction short and long. And he could be said to be a little vagarious within individual works, his fiction especially, which switches occasionally from hard realism to modes more lyrical.
With Jesus’ Son (1992), his collection of short stories, Johnson acquired an enduring following. He is a specialist in hard lives lived on the grim margins of the American Dream. He has written eight novels. Of them, the best known is Tree of Smoke, an epic engagement with the Vietnam War that received the National Book Award in 2007. His other novels are very different, and range across genres—Gothic (Already Dead, 1998), crime (Nobody Move, 2009), postapocalypse (Fiskadoro, 1985), unlucky losers on the road (Angels, 1983). His novella Train Dreams was shortlisted for the 2012 Pulitzer.
He is highly regarded for his poetry, much of it falling on a continuum with the dire confessional subject matter of the early novels and stories. His collections are The Man Among the Seals (1969), Inner Weather (1976), The Incognito Lounge (1982), The Veil (1987), and The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly (1995).
Then there are two books of plays, Shoppers (2002) and Soul of a Whore and Purvis (2012). Underlying religious themes have been noted in these dramatic works. Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond (2001) collects twenty years of Johnson’s writings about conflicts in different parts of the world and in the American badlands.
Outwardly, The Laughing Monsters is a familiar sort of third-world novel—to which the words “noir” and “picaresque” could both be applied. The time is nowadays; Susan Rice is identified as the national security adviser. The US has recently sent in Special Forces to hunt down the Kony brothers’ infamous Lord’s Resistance Army.
I first took the novel’s thinness—whether in mise-en-scène, dialogue, character, the building blocks of strong…
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